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Automation Resignation

(Another week, another science. Secondhand SCIENCE, that is.

This time, we're talking tumor suppressors -- the genes that do important and necessary things, but are only really appreciated after they're gone. Like Vincent Van Gogh, or orthodontic braces. Or a veggie burrito. You get the idea.)

I'm thinking about looking into home automation, or the "internet of things" or "casa Futurama" or whatever the hell people are calling it these days. I haven't taken a serious look yet. I just know that it sounds terribly cool, and that if you don't have the gross national product of a small second-world nation to throw at it, it's going to be disappointing.

Still. It does sound cool.

Take "smart appliances", for instance. We were in the market for a new refrigerator recently, and one of the models that caught my eye was a "smart" model from Samsung.

(Which begged the obvious question: are all of their other models somehow "stupid"? Calling only one "smart" out of a product line of six or whatever doesn't speak very highly of those other fridges. Do they get distracted and unplug themselves when nobody's supervising? Will they boil the gallon of milk I put inside? If none of them can spell "freon", how can I expect them to use it properly?)

(Maybe that's just me. I've always argued that when companies put out a product that's "new and improved", they should have to relabel the remaining stock of original product "old-ass and craptastic".

It's possible I'm a little over-sensitive to modern marketing strategies.)

Anyway, the idea of a smart refrigerator sounded amazing. And I've read in tech articles before where the technology is heading. Barcode readers installed on the doors. Automated sensors to tell you when your milk is expired, or you're nearly out of Cheetos.

(For the record, I don't routinely store my Cheetos in the refrigerator.

But if I had a smart fridge that would sound an alert when I'm almost out, then maybe I would. I'm just saying.)

"This is not the glimpse into the "home of tomorrow" I was hoping for."

Now, I haven't shopped for a refrigerator in several years. So I was eager to see what fantastic time- and effort-saving features had made it to the marketplace. And I went over that Samsung fridge's specs, top to bottom. Here's what I found:

1. It works like all of their other refrigerators, which is to say like pretty much every refrigerator made in the last five years.

2. In the front, instead of a little screen to show temperature or which kind of cube will come out the ice maker, there's a slightly bigger screen about the size of a cheap tablet. A cheap Samsung tablet.

3. The screen is basically a cheap Samsung tablet glued to the door, with several crucial differences. First, the only apps appear to be Pandora, a recipe viewer and a picture display. Second, you can't install any more apps on it. And third, when you compare features with the "stupid" fridges, the cheap tablet glued to the fridge door costs about three times as much as one that isn't glued to the door of a refrigerator.

(Presumably, Samsung sells a whole tier of these Frankenstein beasts, with the price escalating if the tablet is glued to, say, a toaster. Or a French coffee press.)

This is not the glimpse into the "home of tomorrow" I was hoping for. The "home of that day I taped my recipes to the fridge and bought a shitty Bluetooth speaker for the kitchen", maybe. But not "tomorrow", by a long shot.

I'm starting to get the feeling all these other home automation gizmos are in basically the same boat. They're not really "smart"; in fact, they're barely "savant" . Sure, I could get a front door lock that would open when my keychain comes within ten feet of it. But would it stay locked if it was a Sasquatch carrying my keys, and trying to get in to raid my delicious, possibly-past-the-date and maybe-refrigerator-boiled milk?

I don't think so.

Or how about lights that turn on when I enter the bedroom -- unless I'm sneaking in at three in the morning, and trying not to wake the missus? Also, some of those lights can change color. Will they turn green to remind me to take out the recycling? Or red, when I'm getting chewed out for waking up my wife at three in the morning? Or most important, orange when there's a sudden emergency because we're almost out of Cheetos?

Again, it's doubtful.

So I'll keep looking into this "smart-if-you-say-so" technology, but I'm not getting my hopes up. If all the rest of it is only as "smart" as the fridge, it's going to be a long, long time before my kitchen knows more about my kitchen than I do.

I'd better stock up on Cheetos. Just to be safe.

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