The Internet of Things (IoT) is not a solution for domestic tasks

I like Forbes. They generally publish useful and well-researched articles about tech. One of their articles made me angry, though. It paints a picture of how the Internet of Things (IoT) will make domestic tasks a breeze, and it's largely wrong. Or at least the solutions we'll get from the IoT don't come close to taking away the mundane parts of these jobs.

The article attracted my attention because I despise tedious, mundane domestic tasks. If I had to do such tasks once it would be bad enough, but most have to be repeated on a daily or weekly basis.

Forbes paint an accurate picture of the way employment will go. The Covid pandemic has changed things a lot and there will be more home working in future.

Some jobs simply cannot be done from home, but most office-based jobs can. Once we get rid of the archaic, Victorian era bosses who can only get their power fix by surveying a dominion of worshipful workers, home-working contracts will become the norm.

Sometimes people do need to meet in the flesh and I have no faith the 'metaverse' will be a viable substitute. I would guess a hybrid form of working is the future: hot-desking at offices which also contain meeting rooms, with employees working maybe three or four days at home and meeting one or twice a week to stimulate creativity and get some human contact. It's better for the planet, better for the employees, and better for the employers[1].

Domestic chores get in the way of effective work from home practices, though, as Forbes points out:

Domestic chores are an unavoidable yet necessary part of individuals’ personal lives. For instance, tasks such as cooking meals, managing laundry work and making timely lighting and plumbing repairs are hard to overlook, even if an important virtual business meeting is going on. In simple words, tasks such as cooking, cleaning, maintenance and task management act as distractions that stand in the way of remote organizational work.

They then break down three domestic tasks for which they feel the IoT will provide solutions: laundry, cleaning and chore management for children. I don't have children so I won't comment on the latter task, but I'll comment on the other two.

Laundry management

Forbes says:

Smart, connected washing laundry management systems automate the process, meaning that a physical presence is not required when clothes are being washed. Such systems use IoT-based sensors to assist individuals with laundry management.

Such machines can be regulated via a single smartphone app which provides a unified platform for users to monitor and control parameters such as machine speed and number of washing cycles completed.

My washing machine.
Hateful thing. It consistently lies to me about time too.

I cannot see the benefit. The actual washing process does not need a physical presence anyway, at least not in my house. I select a program on the washing machine, add some washing gels and press start, then 90-120 minutes later it has cleaned my clothes just fine. I don't need constant feedback from the IoT about the precise temperature of the water or the molecular content of the mud on my jeans.

The tedious part is loading and unloading the machine, ironing the clothes and putting them all away again afterwards. What will the IoT do about that?

And is there ever a task as hateful as washing the bedclothes? How will the IoT grab the sheets, put them in the washing machine and remake the bed afterwards?

The tedious parts of the laundry process remain no matter how you connect the process up to the IoT.


Forbes says:

Already, there are robotics-based applications available to carry out autonomous cleaning. One of the more futuristic smart home concepts involves autonomous robotic home cleaners, which use specialized mapping algorithms to clean floors and walls more efficiently. Such devices do not require human intervention at all, as they can detect obstacles and use sensor-based outputs to regulate power usage and autonomous cleaner movement.

Yes, but every last one of them is useless. I've tried a few, but they don't clean anywhere near as thoroughly as a human with a Dyson, they inevitably get confused by a corner at some point, and they annoy my cat.

Will the IoT move my furniture to clean under it, or get the mop out and automatically clean the kitchen floor when it hears my cat deposit her breakfast on it? These are the things I want.

I don't think we should raise hopes like this. The really tedious parts of these processes — and the interruptions to our home-working schedules — remain.

I will admit I have an axe to grind here. In the mid-1970s my mathematics teacher led me to believe the world would become a utopia by the year 2000. We would only work a couple of days each week because robots would do everything, and we'd get everywhere via jetpack. He said our major concern would be to find things to entertain us as we'd all have so much time on our hands.

He was wrong then and Forbes is wrong now. The only real technical solution to this is a fully working android, and as far as I can tell robots have only just learnt how to walk up stairs. Robots that can do these domestic tasks in a true, hands-off way seem generations, if not centuries, away.

[1]: This study from the University of Essex provides a balanced view on the work from home (WFH) scenario during Covid. Roughly half of industry sectors reported increased productivity and the other half reported a decline. Some of the main declines were due to pandemic-specific issues, though, such as having to home-school children. These issues would be less prevalent in normal circumstances when children are in school. Another key factor in WFH productivity is lack of equipment or facilities to be able to work effectively, which is something that should be easy to rectify (in jobs where it's possible at all of course). Another study suggests good management is the main influencing factor with WFH. However, some people reported a drop in mental well-being when working from home and this is understandable — we're humans and we need contact (although some more than others). Hence I think hybrid working is the future of employment.