Running on autopilot

Image : Shutterstock
Image : Shutterstock

How many times have you forgotten to pay a bill, write an email, make a phone call or cancel an ap­­pointment? And every time you do, you probably say to yourself “I should get an assistant.” However, if for whatever reason hiring another human to share your workload is not the answer for you, perhaps hiring a machine is, or at least time-sharing it

by Beata Socha

Do you remember PAC-MAN? If you’re too young to remember it, you must have seen it in a movie or a TV show. The classic 1980s game keeps making comebacks in popular culture, a nostalgic nod to the wonders of arcade gaming.

Either way, everyone knows that the yellow circular character’s goal was to eat all the pac-dots in the labyrinth while avoiding being eaten by his four enemies (Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde). The interesting thing is that the enemies appear to be somewhat intelligent – when “awake,” they’d follow Pan-Man through the maze. By today’s standards, it’s hardly impressive. It would be fairly easy to program the game so that the enemies calculated the shortest route to Pac-Man at any given moment, but with 1980s computing power, it was not an easy feat. The game’s creators came up with a rather ingenious way to do it. They programed Pac-Man to leave a trail – a “stench” if you will, that fades away with every move he makes and every second that passes. So when the enemies came across the trail, they just followed its gra­dient – the stronger the stench, the more recent the trail. That’s just one of many examples of how very simple rules can create seemingly intelligent behavior.

Imagine that you walk into your home and your house lights up immediately, your favorite relaxing music is already on and your cappuccino machine has just served you a cup of hot, foamy deli­ciousness. When you take off your coat, your TV switches on and lists all the programs it has tivoed for you in order of importance. While you’re watching, your phone chimes and reminds you that ticket sales to your favorite band’s concert are about to start and you should log on the site to get the best seats. Half an hour later your phone chimes again to tell you that you’ve only walked 5,000 steps today and you may want to go out jogging, especially since it’s a warm and sunny afternoon. It seems too good to be true, but it isn’t. In fact, all of this is possible today.

We have been gradually automating our lives for years: a standing bank order to pay the rent, Google alerts telling you about the latest reports on a topic of interest, lights running on proximity sensors – all of these are in common use. Now, all these processes can be combined, intertwined and tweaked to your liking using very simple rules that altogether make for an excellent virtual personal assistant.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

An increasing number of manufacturers equip their products with technology that allows them to send and receive information and respond to it. The only question that remains is how they can understand the information they receive from other products and services, made by other manufacturers. Your phone, your dishwasher, your car and your thermostat all speak different languages and what they need is a universal tongue, a lingua franca if you will. There is a number of such platforms that can be used for that, but one in particular seems to be catching on more quickly than others: the If This Then That technology (IFTTT). There are already over 400 service providers that equip their products with IFTTT – which means that they can send and receive data from the IFTTT platform via the internet. If you have two devices furnished with IFTTT, they will be able to communicate and respond to one another.

The way it works is quite simple. You create a rule, which are called Applets in the IFTTT language (previously also Reci­pes). One of the devices serves as a trigger and the other performs an action. Let’s say you are allergic to pollen. If the weather re­port says the level of pollen is high in your area, the weather website that supports IFTTT (e.g. Weather Underground) will know to initiate the rule. What it does is send your phone a message to notify you of the pollen situation, e.g.: “High pollen concentration. Take allergy meds.” This is called an action.

You can create rules for your social media accounts (e.g. if someone tags you in a photo, you can have it automatically saved to your dropbox), cars (if you’ve ever lost your car you’d be glad to have a map with your location emailed to you every time you park in the city), home appliances (you can tell the Alexa device to locate your phone, for instance), and much more. You can even trigger your phone to give you a phantom call if you are in a middle of an awkward conversa­tion and in need of an easy way out. The collection of existing applets is growing at an astronomical pace. That’s because they are extremely easy to program, so anytime someone comes up with a useful new rule, they can make it available to all IFTTT users. There are tens of millions of rules already in use. Most big internet services support IFTTT: Google Drive, Gmail, Dropbox, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, BuzzFeed, eBay, Craig­slist – you name it.

SAFE AND COMFY

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Even if social media is unchartered ter­ritory for you, you’ll still find many uses for automated rules in your home. An automatic response in case of fire detection and flooding seems like a must in a mod­ern home. Automation can also prevent burglary. After all, how satisfying is it to watch your security camera feed after your house has been broken into? But what if the system catches the perpetrator in the act and alerts you to their presence so you can in turn call the police? Smart homes with motion sensors can do that. “The system detects movement in the apart­ment while we’re away and sends an alert to your smartphone whenever something unsettling happens. This allows you to im­mediately take action and, for instance, no­tify the security in the building,” explains Mikołaj Pertek, developer market expert at Fibaro. The system can check a number of conditions before sending the alert: if it’s night time and you’re at home, the system will ignore your stroll to the kitchen, but it will start beeping if someone opens the balcony door and enters your home.

 

 Thermostats were supposed to be the ulti­mate solution to temperature regulation, but they are not impervious to human error and forgetfulness. If you open the window to get cool air, your thermostat will compensate for the breeze, using even more power. By applying a few simple rules, and allowing the thermostat to communicate with your smart home central computer “the devices will au­tomatically respond to temperature changes resulting from opening a window, and will not try to heat a room when it’s inefficient,” said Pertek.

The number of possibilities that devices connected to the internet offer is expand­ing rapidly. All it takes it to turn on a few simple rules you can choose from a menu. And yes, there are always safety concerns, as with every new technology. But with the number of things we deal with on a daily basis, automation seems like the only way to remain sane.

The Internet of (vulnerable) things

As the Internet of Things market increases, so does the number of incidents involving breeches in secu­rity of internet-connected devices. Only recently, an industrial dishwasher-disinfector was discovered to have system flaws that allowed a hacker to access and plant malware on it, which could later be used to attack other devices in the network. Given that this type of dishwasher is almost exclusively used in restaurants and cafes, such a hack could potentially have dire consequences (e.g. the malware could compromise the conditions at which food products are refriger­ated, which could lead to dangerous infections and poisoning). Earlier this year, IoT forums were buzzing about a brand of internet-connected teddy bears that had reportedly exposed over 2 million voice messages between parents and children to online hackers. There is no way of knowing how much of the information ac­tually got into the wrong hands, but it’s not too difficult to imagine how it could aid criminals in planning e.g. a burglary or even a kidnapping.

 

OUT OF THE BOX

Some automation rules can be very handy, others are a little out there, and then there are some that will make you smile and think: “What would anyone ever need that for?” Here’s our selection of some of the more inter­esting IFTTT Applets.

SHHHH! TURN IT OFF!

Ever felt embarrassed in the movies when your phone suddenly buzzes, or worse, when your “Gangnam style” ringtone that you’ve been meaning to change in like forever goes off? You can create a rule that will switch your phone to mute whenever you’re in a place where phone use is frowned upon, like the movies, libraries or churches.

NEED COFFEE, NOW!

Would you like to literally wake up to the smell of coffee? You can hook up your fitness band Fitbit to your coffee maker so that when your pulse indicates you’re waking up, the machine will automatically start brewing you a nice hot cuppa joe.

THAT’S NOT VENUS

Imagine you’re looking up at the stars with a date. You point to a brighter dot flying overhead and you say: “Did you know that the ISS is flying above us right now?” Who wouldn’t be impressed? Or maybe you’d like to know when an astro­naut is launched into space?

HONEY, DID YOU WANT ME TO GET SOMETHING?

Whenever you’re shopping your phone can automatically send a text message to your spouse asking them if they need anything from the store. Think about all those unneces­sary repeat trips to the store you will never have to make again!

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