In a conversation with Nest, we discuss the the risks, benefits and future of home automation

For as long as humans have known the concept, home has been a space that protects us from harmful external elements, that nourishes our minds and bodies and readies us for the inevitable return to the reaches outside the home. In many ways, home automation is the technological next step towards making the places we live safer and more comfortable. Homes that can anticipate our needs—from how we like the lights, to what temperature our bedrooms should be in the morning—take the thinking out of the mundane and free us to pursue more important work.

But these technological shortcuts raise as many issues as they solve. From baby cams to security systems, connected devices are ripe targets for hackers. Products like Amazon Echo—with its microphone that records what it hears—tow the line between convenience and a certain sense of Big Brother. In an ongoing Arkansas case where a man stands accused of murdering his friend, Amazon was recently forced to hand over audio recordings of the alleged killing, raising questions about the privacy of smart home devices, and the responsibilities of the companies that are increasingly keeping more of our data.

Alphabet-owned Nest, acquired by Google in 2014, is another major player in the home automation space. In the seven short years since its founding in 2010, the company has attempted to push the idea of the connected home further with a string of products including its Nest Learning Thermostat, Nest Protect—a combination smoke and carbon monoxide detector—and Nest Cam, a security camera with a slew of features that works both indoors and out. With the launch of the Google Home speaker last year (which is compatable with Nest products) Alphabet further expanded its home ecosystem, and by extension the way people think about what a home aught to do.

PSFK recently chatted with Maxime Veron, Nest director of product marketing, on some of the biggest issues surrounding home automation—including privacy—as well as where the category as a whole is headed next.

How have you seen the idea of a connected home evolve over the years? From either a technological or ideological perspective?

That's a good question. The concept of connected home isn't new, right? It started in the late '70s. There was a protocol called X10, and it was meant to allow you to program some devices and then you could trigger activators to turn things on and off. What's interesting is that when you fast-forward to 2017, a lot of people in this space are still basically doing the same thing; things that just turn on and off, things you still need to program yourself. When we started Nest, the goal for us was to make sure that you actually didn't have to program your thermostat right away if you didn't want to. That's why we created the Learning Thermostat. From an ideological point of view, the shift there is really that we believe that new products should be there for you, and should do more for you than you have to do for them.

It seems there are more connected products on the market now than ever before. How does Nest stand out from its competitors? And how do these differences tie into the idea you just mentioned; that products should work for the consumer, rather than the other way around?

If you look at other [competitors] on the market, like SmartThings, for instance, they're good for people who do want to program things, who do want to spend time setting a mood, who do want to spend time trying to understand their triggers and actions. Our products work very differently. The way we've approached it is really solving one problem at a time with one great product at a time. Once you have multiple products in your home, they start talking to each other automatically. For instance your Nest Protect, smoke and carbon monoxide alarm will turn off your HVAC, your heating, or cooling fan if it detects high levels of smoke to prevent bringing new fresh air to your home. If it detects high levels of carbon monoxide it will turn off your heating because that's one of the most common reasons why you might have carbon monoxide poisoning in your home. At the same time, it will turn on your camera just in case something really is happening and you want to have a clip to go back to, to see what happened. All these things happen automatically as soon as you have set up these devices in your home. You don't have to turn anything on, and you don't have to create any rule.

Do you think that there's a limit to how much people trust connected objects, or further than that—artificial intelligence—to have access to their homes? Is there any sort of privacy or security concern?

Oh, yeah. That's a great question. Actually, I would argue that it starts not even with artificial intelligence, but just the connected object. Like, do you trust that this—let's just take as an example—that this camera is going to not spy on you, basically? That thinking was [considered] from the beginning—from the first development boards of every single one of our products. Security and privacy go together. If you don't have any security on your product then you don't have any privacy, because everybody can look at your data. There have been several stories for instance of baby cams being hacked and videos of babies' bedrooms being found on the web as an open stream. Just a few months ago, connected video cameras and other connected devices in the home were being used again on some websites.

So how does Nest protect its customers from being spied on?

Today, customers choose a connected product for their home based mainly on feature and price. We believe that, over time, the third pillar there, the third criteria, will be security. Our products don't ship, for instance, with a default login and password. To connect our Nest product to the Internet, you have to create your account. You verify your email address. You have to create a password that's secure. It can't be just ‘1234.' Then you have two-factor authentication that happens to make sure that the product you are trying to setup is the one you actually have in your hand. We make all of this as easy as we can through the app.

What if any ethical dilemmas surround AI-assisted technology? In home products or otherwise?

Well take, for instance, this thing about parallel foresight with automatic or self-driving cars. I for one think that 20 years from now, maybe humans will be prevented from driving a car in some parts of the country or in some countries around the world. As in, it will be illegal for a human to drive, because it will be so much safer for a machine to do it on their behalf. But in the meantime, you have the dilemma of if the car is driving you, and then the car has to make a choice between you and saving the pedestrian who is crossing just in front of you illegally, and the car maybe doesn't have time to stop—what does it do? Big dilemma. That, to me, is an example of how artificial intelligence will have its limits, for sure. Thankfully for the home, these problems—at least so far—haven't been that dramatic.

How has AI been used in Nest products, and how does the technology benefit consumers outside of the initial wow-factor of having a thermostat that knows what temperature you like the house to be at?

We've been using [artificial intelligence] in our products to do things like enabling the thermostat to learn from your temperature [preferences] to create a schedule for you. It's pretty benign in terms of potential issues and trust. But it's also very positive for customers, because it saves them energy, and saves them money. You turn the temperature up or down for the first three or four days and if you have Nest Thermostat in your home it creates a schedule. It's been proven to save energy through independent studies, which show that you save 10 to 12 percent on your heating bill and 15 percent on your cooling bill. This is a great way to use artificial intelligence to provide value to customers that has almost no negative impact.

So would you say consumers generally trust AI, once they see the benefits?

In terms of trust, so far we haven't seen anything that shows that customers are not trusting, or not willing to trust, artificial intelligence in their home. One of the key questions that we all had when Amazon's Alexa launched was, “Would people be willing to put a device in their home that has a mic always on?” The success from Amazon and now, Google Home, has shown us that yes, people actually are willing and ready to do that. As you know, in high tech, like in many other markets, it's always a tradeoff between what you're willing to give up versus the benefit you get from it. You give up your credit card information, sometimes on the phone to book travel, because that will make sure that you don't have to wait to get a bill, and pay by check, for instance. You just gave your credit card number to someone. Who knows what they're going to do with it? So far, the tradeoff seems to be in favor of artificial intelligence. But I would not take it from me. Have you heard of cases that don't match this analysis?

I think you're right-on in terms of where the trends are going. People are becoming more comfortable with giving up bits of their privacy for convenience. I also think the definition of what's considered “private” information is changing too. I, for one, know that I'm much more comfortable giving away my information to companies than my parents are. So it raises a whole bunch of interesting questions.

Definitely, and you're right about the generational gap there, and whether I like it or not I'm in my 40s and I'm much more open to giving up privacy to gain something back than some other people in my family, for sure.

With that in mind, who would you say is the Nest customer and what are they looking for?

Two of them that come to mind: early tech adopters who want the latest and greatest, and savings-conscious consumers, for who it's more about the cost benefits than the technology itself. The second group will buy the Nest Thermostat first and foremost because it's proven to save them energy. In fact, we're the first Energy Star rated thermostat. Then they will buy the Nest Protect because it's a great smoke alarm and it also has a carbon monoxide alarm. They'll buy the Nest Cam because it will help them sleep better at night. For the first group, they're very design-oriented and they want something that stands out. That's why we just released three additional color rings for Nest Thermostat. We now have copper, black, and white in addition to stainless steel, and so they really like the look of something that's different from their neighbors or friends.

How important then is good design? How much thought and consideration goes into each product?

Design is critical. And design for us doesn't just mean industrial design, the way it looks. Design is how it behaves, how you can use it, how easy is it to install. We look at these holistically. The hardware design is key. You want to make sure that customers are happy and want to buy your product. But the way you use it is important—if you have a beautiful thing that is very hard to use, it becomes a doorstop. One of the key reasons why people embraced the Nest Thermostat five years ago was because it was just the best programmable thermostat—other programmable thermostats were so hard to use. We offer customers something to lust after from a design standpoint, but when they get it home it's something that's easy to install and use.

I'm sure you can't mention any products that are in development [the company is reported to be working on a home security system and a smart doorbell], but generally speaking, are there any technologies or innovations that excite you personally and that you're excited to see developed in the future?

One thing I can tell you has to do with the intelligence alert that we have on our camera, thanks to our close collaboration with Google. We're using their algorithm tailored for our use for a stationary camera inside or outside your home to detect people, to detect the door. There are so many other things that can be detected in your home or outside your home that intelligence could alert you about that would be very, very exciting over the next few months and years.

Yeah. I can just imagine a camera that could, say, distinguish your neighbor from a delivery person, or a burglar.

All these are great example because it also speaks to the questions you were asking earlier about AI. That is a great benefit of AI. It's like having a security guard looking at your home 24/7. Not just looking and pressing a red button every time something moves, but being able to know what to alert you about.

Hopefully as the technology develops it becomes enmeshed in the home to the point where you don't necessarily think about them as being separate objects, everything will just work in harmony.

I'm with you there. We're working closely with Google to make sure we bring more intelligence to all of our products and create that platform that I was telling you about, but also making sure that [every product] speaks to each other very easily. Our platforms are actually now one-in-the-same. There's one team at Alphabet that takes care of IoT for Alphabet, for Nest, for Google and more, so I know that Google tries to do exactly what you're talking about.

What is your idea of home?

For me, at least, the modern home is a home that enables me to basically have all these devices working together to do what I want them to do. The key piece to that is actually how many remotes. A remote control that I can use and, if I press one button, it turns on my TV, it turns off my music, it dims my lights and can even turn down my thermostat. For some people it might be a vocal command. What I hope happens in the future is that thanks to AI and sensors, you don't even have to say or do anything for these things to happen. The home should be able to do that for you. To me the key thing is to make sure I don't have to take care of my home as much as it can take care of me. The ultimate goal in the future then is something that will actually be seamlessly live, so that I don't have to think about it and I can focus on the important things. I could focus on feeding my kids, driving them to school, going on a night out with my wife, making sure my family and my home are safe. So really being able to enjoy the moment more because my home can take care of itself and because my home can let me know when something is wrong.

How close are we to that being a reality?

We're getting there. At Nest, we have a unique calling which is to take care of these big, important problems for you. From an analytical point of view, this is really for us a stepping-stone on the path to what we call, internally and externally as well, the conscious home, the thoughtful home. The thoughtful home, for us, is really a home that can take care of people inside the home, and also the world around it by saving lives, by saving energy, and making a better world for everyone out there.

Nest

For as long as humans have known the concept, home has been a space that protects us from harmful external elements, that nourishes our minds and bodies and readies us for the inevitable return to the reaches outside the home. In many ways, home automation is the technological next step towards making the places we live safer and more comfortable. Homes that can anticipate our needs—from how we like the lights, to what temperature our bedrooms should be in the morning—take the thinking out of the mundane and free us to pursue more important work.