our data; ourselves

Smart-Home Robots Are Using Their Cuteness to Spy on You Better

Illustration: Konstantin Sergeyev/SelectAll; cnythzl/Getty Images

For a while, I thought I would get a cat, but instead I got a robot vacuum cleaner.

I recently moved into an old brownstone in Brooklyn. The house was built during the construction boom, which followed the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, and while the space had lots of charm, it also seemed to have an endless supply of dust.

Although I was at first skeptical about introducing a gunmetal-gray autonomous robot into my peaceful home, my opinion soon changed.

Researching robot vacuums online, I was encouraged to learn that the technology had improved greatly in recent years. While the fancier models have 360-degree cameras and lasers that map your house’s interior, such things aren’t strictly necessary, although they are said to help. There was one model that caught my eye — it promised the perfect balance of effectiveness and economy — so I sent off an order, unsure exactly what to expect.

Today, to hear it buzzing around in the next room, diligently sweeping along baseboards and bumping into things, I have the satisfaction of a parent whose child is peacefully entertaining himself just out of sight. With each basket of dust and fuzz that the robot gathers, I feel my affection for the device grow. Sometimes, I get up from my desk to visit the robot and watch with bemusement as it goes about its tasks. Once it became stuck under a radiator and tried all manner of whirling contortions to free itself. Wishing to relieve the device from further struggle, I reached down and wrested it free.

While I would be the first to admit that I may be offering the robot a little too much of my attention, the internet-enabled smart devices making their way into our homes are all trying to ingratiate themselves to us in different ways. As any marketer or product designer will tell you, emotional connections trump intellectual ones every day of the week. To make something compelling, you have to go for the heart strings.

Vampires, so the myth goes, can’t enter our homes until we invite them in. Once we do, they can come and go as they please. I cannot help but ask myself, What kind of roommates are we inviting into our homes when we outfit them with smart devices that purport to know us better than we know ourselves? With everything from coffee makers to sex toys and power strips for sale in smart and connected forms, where is all of this actually leading?

Issues of surveillance and privacy certainly come to mind. Journalists at Gizmodo have shown that smart devices record an astounding amount of detail about our domestic habits, from when we brush our teeth, to when we turn our lights on and off, when we stream music, what we watch on Hulu, and how well we sleep. iRobot, the company that makes the Roomba, the popular high-end vacuum robot, recently announced that it was considering sharing the maps of the inside of our homes with Google, Facebook, and Apple. (How many stars will the review of my dirty laundry pile have, I wonder?)

As soon as those packets of data leave the house’s threshold, they go off into the great expanse of the world-out-there, used by companies to develop richer target profiles and sold to unaccountable third parties. The stakes can be quite high when our individual tastes and quirks are exploited. We open our doors to strangers at our own risk.

But while these kinds of intrusions into our privacy have become unfortunately commonplace online, there is something different about extending them to our domestic spaces. Homes have a particular kind of symbolic meaning. Much of life begins and ends in the house. They are our refuge and where our intimacies are fostered. Wardrobes and chests, drawers and shelves, stairs and cellars are the stuff of dreams and memories. But what happens when the walls have ears? When they reply in a perfectly calibrated, honey-toned voice with the answer to a question we hadn’t even thought to ask?

The current goal of smart-home-device companies is to capture an ever-increasing range and granularity about what we do. With the advent of conversational AI products like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant, our houses are starting to develop personalities. While today these devices can be frustratingly inept, a lot of research is being done to make them into engaging companions.

The field of social robotics focuses on engineering machines that are perfectly optimized for their cultural environment. If self-driving cars need a good sense of physics, social robots need the tools of a confidence artist.

Take, for example, the robot Jibo, which has consistently been described as “adorable” (and not much else). Jibo was a consumer social robot launched by Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT scientist whose prior work included a robot funded by the Office of Naval Research that could produce an uncanny range of empathy-inducing facial expressions. These social robots have a remarkable ability to seduce their owners and induce feelings of attachment and guilt. The MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle wrote in the Washington Post recently about how children think of these robots as almost people, which is perhaps understandable when their Pixar-sleek shapes talk about how fun, but scary, it would be to ride on top of a lightning bolt, or when they lament never being able to taste bacon. It would take a hard heart indeed to not be moved by the device’s innocent profundities.

Personalization and the unblinking gaze of algorithms play on our emotions and our desires. They’ve gotten quite good at putting advertising in front of us that we will click on, or curating just the right stream of Instagram photos to keep us engaged for hours. If Facebook and Google have made their fortunes by maximizing the amount of time and attention we give to their platforms, what ulterior motives will our homes develop? Where will we rest our heads when our pillows whisper advertisements in our ears as we sleep? In principle, we can delete our Facebook or Twitter accounts if we choose, but when even the toaster requires us to agree to its terms of service, we won’t have much of a choice.

We’re on the verge of a world where our houses are becoming smart about us. And because we share custody of our internet-connected devices with the companies whose software brings them to life, we may find ourselves strangers in our own land.

However, the future is not yet written. Increasingly, the public is waking up to the risks inherent in an unregulated technology industry, and calls for greater oversight are growing.

While it’s certainly the time to get more engaged with the issues around technology, it also can be hard to complain about clean floors. Who knows, I may even get a cat after all. Apparently, there’s a new smart litter box on the market.

Social Robots Are Using Their Cuteness to Spy on You Better