The Home Goes Digital

18 Mar 2019

How can we incorporate digital technologies and AI into our homes to benefit all household members, particularly those in need of more care – children, the elderly, the infirm or disabled – while guarding against their disadvantages?

STI Experts Meetings

The second STI-sponsored experts meeting organized and hosted by the Home Renaissance Foundation was held February 25-26 in London.  The Home in a Digital Age meeting brought together economists, economic historians, technology pioneers and entrepreneurs, architects and design researchers, philosophers of science, social psychologists, computer scientists and a member of the British Parliament to consider how to make the best of the opportunities offered by technology in the context of the home. 

Sophia Aguirre, professor of economics at the Catholic University of America’s business school, opened by outlining the Home Renaissance Foundation’s research aims: to give status and increased understanding of the work and life of the home and to provide an evidence base to inform and influence policy and decision making at a local, national and global level.

In the “AI, Automation and the Home” session, economic historian Stephen Davies of Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) gave historical perspective to the anxieties associated with new technologies. Society has successfully adapted to great technological shifts in the past, he noted, pointing out that discussion of the effects of AI on the labor market has focused on the workplace rather than on the home. “The strengthening of the home and households and families is not an explicit goal of public policy. If it were, the discussion of automation and its possible effects would have quite a different content and flavor.” Only since the middle of the 20th Century have individuals replaced the household as the basic economic unit, he added. Davies predicted that 80% of white-collar jobs including doctors and lawyers will be replaced by AI systems. Looking forward he sees a return to home working with an emphasis on those things that cannot be made by machines. Such an artisan era could have many implications for the domestic sphere.

The second session took up the impact of AI on employment. Economist Mia Mikic, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, picked up on the strand introduced by Davies that the economic impact of AI is broadly being seen as an impact on employment. Considering just 15 major developed and emerging economies, the World Economic Forum predicts that frontier technological trends will lead to a net loss of over five million jobs by 2020. Mikic picked up Davies’ point that even though many of these workers will be redeployed, the individual, familial and social upheaval of relocation, retraining and changed income levels is not factored into global forecasts and spreadsheets. Mikic was keen to point out that although there are social benefits to much of the “almost intelligent” technology taking over many of the more dangerous tasks including bomb disposal, at the domestic level the benefits are harder to call. Key societal responses to the new technologies should be improving access to education in these new life-skills and ensuring inclusivity especially by encouraging women to play a full entrepreneurial role in the digital economy. Professor Joy Malala from Strathmore University in Nairobi responded to Mikic’s presentation  by drawing attention to the experience of Kenyans who have been enfranchised by the new “hand-held” technology that does not depend on a national infrastructure. The mobile revolution has put financial planning and educational opportunities literally into the hands of Kenyan householders. “Ninety-nine percent of the population does not have a bank account, but they do have a phone,” she pointed out.

In the session titled “Digital Home: The Missing Element for a People-centered Digital Future,” technology pioneer Mei Lin Fung from the World Economic Forum’s People-Centered Internet group, shared statistics on the scale of our digital progress and placed them firmly in the context of their implications for our shared future: “We are at the 50/50 moment when half the world is connected to the internet. What happens when the other half come on line is in our hands. We have the opportunity to prioritize home and family above work – and still live well.” She called the home “the custodian of what is shared and what is private - the node that connects and protects wider communities."  Co-author Deborah Gale from the Global Institute of Experienced Entrepreneurship added her plea for active participation and leadership in the regulation and planning for the digital future. This was echoed by Lord Best responding to the question “Is the internet too big and too disparate for regulation?” and calling for urgent engagement in providing good regulatory guidance and safeguards.

In “Contested Homes in the Age of the Cloud,” Professor Gamal Abdelmonem, Chair in Architecture and the Director of the Centre for Architecture, Urbanism and Global Heritage at Nottingham Trent University, addressed one of the meeting’s key questions: how are new technologies changing the perception of our bodies, our sense of belonging, and social relationships? Two fundamental changes are affecting the life of the home: 1) an ageing European population, and 2) the increasing encroachment of technologies in the way homes operate on a daily basis. Smart homes for the elderly must address the concerns of older people themselves and not only those of their caregivers. Issues of safety and security are important, argued Abdelmonem, but so are fears of social isolation and lack of privacy. He also noted the changes to private and public spaces and contexts, as private/personal space can now be achieved by plugging into the digital world, creating isolation in formerly shared space. Home planning for all generations needs to recognize the shifting demographic and private/public domains and to “integrate technologies that are family friendly with clear ethical and moral principles,” he said, basing digital development on underlying human values.

Luisa Damiano, Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of Messina, led the next session: “Homes as Human Robot Ecologies: An Epistemological Inquiry on the “Domestication” of Robots.” She explored how the notion of “domestic robots” has moved from science fiction to frontier research. Like Abdelmonem’s, her focus was on how human needs and behaviors must be integrated with these developments – making robots that genuinely benefit humans in domestic contexts rather than teaching humans how to deal with robots. The so-called “peer-to-peer” interaction skills of robots in a wide range of home-based care and work tasks from cleaning to baby-sitting “promises a considerable transformation of humans’ domesticity and way of living,” she anticipated. Damiano advocated the urgency of a specific ethical reflection on these developments.  Ioana Ocnarescu, Design Researcher at Strate School of Design in Paris, illustrated Damiano’s argument with examples from the robot design perspective. Designers are most often approached to optimize the use of a robot that has already been created, she said, when it should be the other way around. Designers are best-placed to be a part of the process from the beginning to ensure that the robot serves human needs rather than requiring humans to adjust to what the robot can do. Ocnarescu showed an amusing video to illustrate her points.

London School of Economics Professor of Social Psychology Sonia Livingstone delivered a keynote speech entitled “Digital Families: Grand Hopes, Growing Fears, Everyday Struggles.” Aspects of her work with Alicia Blum-Ross on Parenting for a Digital Future addressed the key question of how new technologies can enhance children’s growth and social integration, and

intergenerational relationships in the domestic environment, as well as their costs and benefits. Livingstone’s research has established that 5 out of 6 parents use digital technologies for parenting. She outlined some of the mixed messages we receive about the new technologies - encouraged to prepare for a digital future while bombarded with scare stories about excessive screen time and internet dangers. Negotiating a path through this new terrain causes tension and disconnection within the home and relationships. Livingstone’s research suggests that many of the fears about screen time and access are not borne out by evidence. Gaining digital confidence, she said, equips children for the new world. What does digital citizenship look like in the domestic context, and when are children ready to become digitally active? Who should regulate and safe-guard such access, and how?

Professor Francesca Toni, Professor in Computational Logic in the Department of Computing at Imperial College London, and the founder and leader of the CLArg (Computational Logic and Argumentation) research group, argued that  these technologies, although evolving fast, still have a long way to go. From Toni’s perspective, there is still time and opportunity to make these new technologies work for rather than against human social needs. The commercial developments that we see in place now aim to identify and optimize human activities. “Connected Homes” are seen as places where control of energy consumption and security are managed either remotely or centrally by householders, she explained. There is not yet much available that engages directly with social connection facilitated by AI within the home between family/household members. This is an area where conversation between those working in the field of AI, scientific and commercial, and those concerned with policy making is vital.