Let’s talk about robots: Google’s Nest acquisition brings AI to the smart home

In the hours after Google announced its agreement to purchase Nest Labs for $3.2 billion, the companies involved in the smart home sector saw their market validated and their potential valuations skyrocket. But after the initial excitement wore off, there was a realization that with this move, the startups will have to step up with making their products smarter and less manual while the big companies need to move from their secretive product development phase into real implementation.

In short, with Google’s monetary muscle behind it and the Nest success so far, the smart home could finally become real. Not the manual implementations that we see today where the consumer has to manually add devices, manually set rules and otherwise tweak their networks with every new app update or device they bring into the home. Instead we’ll see the launch of the anticipatory home — a home where devices aren’t just connected, but also intelligent.

In short they’ll be robots. Stay with me. Robots are defined as any machine that is “smart” enough to make autonomous decisions. So the Nest is a little robot. In fact, the Nest VP of Technology Yoky Matsuoka is a former robotics professor and researcher. She was responsible for the Nest UI as well as developing algorithms — and with the acquisition she’ll be returning home to Google, as before she joined Nest she worked at Google X, Google’s moon shot lab.

Little robots invading the home

Ali Kashani, VP Software at Energy-Aware, a company building an energy sensor and app for the home, says the Nest buy plus Google’s documented interest in other elements of robotics validates this concept of a true smart home.

“What if in the next year or two we see robotics happen so we have robots in our day-to-day life?” Kashani asks comparing it to Google’s purchase of Android back in 2005. “We have this fascination with the Hollywood version of robotics where they are servants and humanoids, but robotics is when you add intelligence to physical objects.”

So much like the smartphone, which the industry had anticipated, but only gained mainstream traction and form factor after Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, robots may be staring us in the face. But because we have the form factor all wrong we can’t see them.

Kashani asks, “Instead of adding new objects to our lives, what if everything in our lives is intelligent? It’s a very small natural evolution to the internet of things. The internet of things right now means connected devices but if you take it one step forward you get the killer app for IoT.” This intelligence applied across all manner of devices and embedded in our economy is also how we will likely solve the looming gap between the virtual economy and the delivery of physical goods.

How do you train the robot army?

But when it comes to the smart home Kashani is right about artificial intelligence being the killer app. Kevin Tofel and I spent a lot of time discussing this on the podcast. We call it the anticipatory home, and I even described some of the possible use cases deriving from this intelligence in the story I wrote about Google’s Nest buy and the conversation about data privacy.

Yet, even if we get a home full of robots in a somewhat mundane form factor, there are still issues that Google and the industry will need to resolve. Those issues include:

  • How will devices know what their capabilities are and then be able to share that? All Joyn is one effort to do this but lighter protocols like MQTT plus the cloud are another.
  • What will orchestrate the system? Master intelligence in a hub or the cloud or each device having some intelligence working from a pre-programmed model?
  • What business model evolves around intelligent devices and the subsequent services they provide?
  • How does the user interface with such a system?

So, while this deal just sent the home automation industry a $3.2 billion message, it may not be the message that the home automation industry is ready to recognize. This isn’t automation, this is artificial intelligence.