IOT Home Pt 3 – I live with Stupid


Which brain powers your smart home, yours or Alexa’s? If you’ve spent any time trying to set up automation for your home, you might find yourself building a Rube Goldberg machine. One of my first exposures to these entertaining machines was Pee Wee Herman’s breakfast machine.

What digital assistants can learn from the human brain

Pee Wee Herman’s Rube Goldberg machine is like the automated home

The configuration of “scenes” or other automated steps through services like IFTTT are great, but inaccessible for most people. It also proves that the smart home isn’t quite smart yet. Much of the “smarts” of smart home hubs that don’t rely on your configuration comes from their digital assistants’ reliance on skills or integrations with third-party apps. This approach is a natural progression of how we increase the capabilities on our phones: You go to an app store, install an app, open that app, and wow now your phone can do __________!

Without a visual interface though, digital assistants dump all of that work onto you and your brain. It’s up to you to install a skill, it’s up to you to decide which skill is best at fulfilling your request, it’s up you to remember the name of the skill and its commands. Here’s an example of a skill that is supposed to help you in an emergency:

Something is very wrong here


Doesn’t something seem a little off here? Let’s look at the best assistant there is, your brain, for an alternative approach.


The human brain & Abraham Lincoln

The book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin explores how Abraham Lincoln chose three of his rivals to form part of his cabinet, and the effect that had on his decision-making and presidency. In short, their different approaches and ideologies helped Lincoln come to better conclusions. Our brains, it turns out, function very similarly.


Neurologist Dr. Elias Bazakos describes it this way: “It’s a constant tug-of-war between competing systems that do similar functions, so it’s kind of like the same logic of ‘there’s multiple ways to skin a cat.’ Your brain is constantly choosing which faculty wins that tug-of-war and that’s what it executes.”

Take for example, your memory: Normal memory is usually written to one part of the brain, the hippocampus. But traumatic memories get written to both the hippocampus and the amygdala. Your subconscious decides to use another part of your brain to do the same job, given the circumstances. (For more info on the subconscious please check out Incognito — The Secret Lives of the Human Brain, it’s like a Radiolab episode in a book.)

Two types of memory diagram
Two types of memory

Our brains are always evaluating for the best system for a particular job. Dr. Bazakos added that they exploit this process to help patients with Parkinson’s regain motor function by training their brains to bypass the affected region and use another one to pick up an object. He put it best, “that’s some fascinating neuroscience stuff.”


The subconscious is not an app store, it’s a streaming service

So what does that have to do with digital assistants? Digital assistants should model their ecosystems after the human brain and not app stores. These digital assistants’ creators have already made this transition once before: music.


The days of going to a music store, browsing for an album, purchasing it, taking it out of its case and putting it in your CD player every time you’re in the mood for it, are over. Even the iTunes pay-to-download model is pretty much dead. Instead, millions of people pay a monthly fee to a streaming service like Spotify or Apple Music with instant access to millions of songs and albums. These services are acting like your subconscious every time they choose a song for you based on another song, on a mood, or a smart playlist. No matter how you get there, each time you listen to a track, the artist gets a cut of your subscription fee.


Now imagine if smart hub ecosystems adopted this same model. If you want your smart hub to have more than basic capabilities then you pay a monthly fee, which gives you instant access to every skill available. When you give your digital assistant a request it decides for you which skill is the best for the job, given your location, your calendar, and the skill’s speed and effectiveness. You shouldn’t have to think about a branded name for a skill, you should just benefit from its capabilities, just like when Spotify puts on the perfect song for the moment. Each time a skill/command/whatever wins as the chosen solution, then a cut of your subscription goes to that developer.

Skills are like music tracks, not apps
Skills are like music tracks, not apps

The benefit? Developers can spend less time and money on marketing and branding, and more on making their skills better. The best skills get selected more often, so without your knowledge, developers are quietly engaged in an all-out war to create the best skill for your needs. All the while your digital assistant is functioning like your subconscious, taking on that load of remembering and deciding for you. Your home (and your phone) are getting smarter by the minute.

Digital assistants should model their ecosystems after the human brain and not app stores.

Lessons Learned

  1. Skills go to waste when it’s up to us to consciously use them
  2. We learn with our brains; let’s learn from them too
  3. Digital assistant ecosystems should be modeled after music streaming services

As always we’re very interested in your insights! As a burgeoning podcast, we’d love your feedback. So all this month, leave us a review on iTunes or Google Play and you’ll automatically be entered to win one of two WyzeCams to add to your connected home. Just send us your username so we know who you are, via Twitter dm @ideateTeam, or drop us an email. We look forward to hearing from you!

Aaron is an unabashed technophile, much to the dismay of his wife, with whom he shares a dining room table for an office. He fights for the user, but knows when to shut up. He designs for all platforms (iOS, Android, Windows, and web)—but put Aaron and Hiromi in the same room and they'll blow your minds. Don't ask Aaron any questions during an Apple Keynote—he is doing research. Aaron lives in St. Paul, MN with his wife and dog. Yes, it is very cold there. Thanks for asking.

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