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Success in smart cities depends upon success in the smart home

The smart home is the key to the success of the smart city, says Simon Forrest, Imagination Technologies.

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Today’s explosion of technological innovation is enabling companies to deliver more and more elements of what will ultimately comprise the smart home. As consumers embrace these technologies, they will be able to see and understand the benefits both in terms of financial savings and environmental improvements.

“Smart home” is a loosely defined term. Many industry analysts simply require that at least one smart product is installed in order to declare that a home is smart. This could be an Internet-controlled heating system or a single smart light bulb. However, to me a smart home is something very different – one in which the majority of products and services are interconnected; one where the underlying technology is able to take intelligent decisions about managing and arranging those services for the benefit of the consumer.


The requisite technologies and communication standards are all now reasonably mature, with several solutions deployed using 802.11 Wi-Fi or otherwise more lightweight protocols such as Zigbee or Thread over 802.15.4.The deployment of virtual private assistants (VPA), such as Alexa and Google Home, are beginning to provide a convenient mechanism for frictionless interfaces between the consumer and smart devices within the home.


However the ’smartness’ in a smart home can only happen once several vendors share data from each of their individual vertical market segments, and that requires collaboration and new business models to be successful.


Consumer benefits

 

Ultimately the consumer must benefit, otherwise they will continue to be largely dismissive on the whole smart home and smart city concept. The main challenge is the proprietary nature of these solutions today. Savvy consumers know they have a choice between a handful of ecosystems but the majority are simply confused, and many would prefer their broadband provider to offer a package to supply and manage a useful set of services.


Moreover, vendors must agree on a set of interconnectivity standards, otherwise the smart home reduces to a set of disparate apps tethered to a smartphone or virtual assistant. And that’s not very smart!


Service providers must also benefit through knowledge gained via use of their products and services, allowing tailoring of services previously unavailable to the customer (e.g. home security, HVAC control, and so forth) and perhaps even full customisation. Once they achieve scale, advanced services can begin to proliferate – for example, the ability for an electricity supplier to dim the lights by a small percentage and save on consumer energy bills whilst simultaneously reducing electricity consumption across a city overall to avoid bringing another power station online.

Only then will smart home begin to dovetail with smart city infrastructure. Ultimately, you need a large population of smart homes to achieve smart city scale benefits.

New business models drive creativity

 

Success in the smart city necessitates new business models and innovative ways to generate revenue. Consumers won’t watch an advertisement to turn up the heating, for example.

Likewise, monetising a city-wide traffic mitigation strategy is somewhat troublesome unless we find alternative ways to pay for the up-front infrastructure costs and derive ongoing revenues.

All data reaches a cloud eventually but there isn’t just one cloud, hence I anticipate new business models that will encourage service providers to publish data between clouds, charging fees for exchange of information deemed useful for services provided by other vendors.

A simple example might be the city metro paying for up-to-the-minute weather information, allowing them to increase the frequency of train services during rain showers – commuters don’t like to get wet, nor wait for delayed trains!

When aggregated as a whole, you can easily see how service revenues could scale appropriately. Indeed, smart cities could end up being sustained via micro-payments for data shared between clouds.


Smarter interaction

 

Most concur that artificial intelligence (AI) will play an increasingly important role in the smart home. Today we have nothing more than imperfect ‘command and control’ interfaces. Admittedly the methods of interaction have vastly improved, notably with advances in voice recognition and the ability for consumers to use more expressive phraseology when communicating with smart devices.

 

However, the smart home needs to deliver far more than just an app to control a lightbulb; it needs to extend beyond simply notifying the user about the status of a device, or answering questions, and instead evolve into a system that makes intelligent decisions and manages the home autonomously.

AI, whether in the device or in the cloud, becomes an essential part of the solution, and that’s where the intelligence truly happens.

Extending the concept to the smart city, there is valuable opportunity to employ AI for traffic management. Neural networks can predict congestion across the road network using sophisticated statistical analysis and pattern matching. This enables local authorities to divert traffic into and around cities more intelligently by inputting live data from various sources, including vehicles themselves, with AI creating dynamic strategies to ease traffic flow.

Ultimately, autonomous vehicles will proliferate and alleviate many of the problems but, meantime, there are interim steps necessary to create a pathway towards a full smart city infrastructure. Imagine traffic lights that no longer indicate the usual green signal, but instead display a dynamic arrow depicting which way drivers must turn in order to balance the traffic load across a network of city streets.

Artificial intelligence at the edge

 

AI will have implications on the silicon chips themselves. For example, natural language processing, voice recognition technologies and vision processing algorithms all place demands upon the silicon chip to both process data locally and relay to the cloud for onward processing and data aggregation.

 

Some chips will need more CPU performance; others will need to leverage GPUs (graphics processors) for compute and vision processing; some will need advanced security features.


There’s no doubt that technological advancement in the smart city will force silicon chips to evolve alongside to meet new requirements. Indeed, the sheer volume of data being created could become so vast that relaying everything via the cloud is likely to be unsustainable.

Instead, intelligence is expected to be distributed across the smart city infrastructure, enabling ‘data’ to be turned into ‘information’ much earlier in the chain, which increases processing capability whilst simultaneously reducing bandwidth and data transmission costs.


Trusted environment

 

Ultimately the consumer must be convinced that both the devices and the services that they enable can be trusted to improve their lives in some way. We must move beyond simple ‘command and control’ into smart homes that are fully transparent, enabling services that do truly useful and intelligent things.

 

The introduction of AI promises to improve this immensely. And once the consumer gains trust in smart home technology, they are much more likely to embrace the smart city concept, safe in the realisation that it’s not just ‘command and control’ on behalf of governments and local authorities, but instead is absolutely about getting them to their destination a little quicker, improving the utilisation of city resources, enhancing their living and working environments, and, overall, increasing their wellbeing.

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