Jeepers! We’re living in the future!

Photo of a Nest thermostat by James Britton from Flickr

Nest thermostat by James Britton from Flickr

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. – William Gibson

The thermostat we had when we got up this morning knew the temperature in the house (or at least in the living room downstairs) and because it was “programmable” it had some inkling of what we wanted the temperature to be. On the other hand it had no idea what the weather was like or was expected to be. It didn’t have a clue that a big winter storm was headed our way until the wind had already stripped away whatever heat was stored up in the walls.

It didn’t know if we were actually home or away, so we always had to remember to fiddle with the settings before we went away at Xmas.

It didn’t have any idea how long it would take our 100+ year old hot water radiator heating system to get up to speed or expend its heat. This meant that it often overshot, especially on cold mornings leading to sunny mild days.

It’s communication skills also left something to be desired, being limited to a small, unlit LCD display and four buttons. We keep a flashlight on a table under it specifically because it’s such a pain to to see, even in daylight, and we keep the instruction manual close to hand because the strange button combinations needed to alter the programming make emacs key combinations look positively intuitive.

And we had to be right in front of it to interact with it. If we left for vacation and forgot to put it on hold, well that was just too bad. And there was no way to tell it that we were an hour or two from arrival and it would be really swell if it could start warming the house up for us so we’d come home to something more welcoming than a furnished meat locker.

This afternoon, though, all that changed as we installed our new Nest thermostat.

We now have a thermostats that’s on the Internet. It knows where we live and knows that the sun went down a few minutes. It can access weather forecasts, so it knows how much the temperature is likely to drop tonight. And we can talk to it from anywhere we’re on-line. I can’t see it from where I’m sitting, but via this laptop I know that it reads the current temperature in the living room as 72F. And I can change its settings from this computer. Or my iPod touch. Or a computer at my parents’ house in Arkansas. We can provide an ETA and desired temperature from the road on the way home from a vacation, and the Nest can combine what it knows of our house, our heating system, the weather, and our request to figure out how to make it all happen.

WeatherGrrrl and I were giddy as school kids after we installed it and set up the accounts. We’d connect to it in different ways and alter the settings, and then look at the Nest and watch it respond almost instantly, and watch the displays on other computers update in real time. We giggled like we’d fallen into some strange episode of the Jetsons or Star Trek. And the crazy thing is that it hasn’t actually done anything yet, as the temperature’s still warm enough that we don’t actually want the heat to be on. Yet we sat there dreaming up scenarios and possibilities enabled by this splendid little device, and smiled and laughed and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

While we have no actual experience to report, I can say that the packaging was wonderfully elegant (very Apple-esque), installing it was no problem even for a unhandy person such as me, the set up was easy, and connecting on-line was a breeze. Now we wait while it learns things like how to recognize whether we’re home or now and, when the weather gets cold enough that we need heat, what our heating preferences are and how our aged house and radiator system respond to its commands. Here’s hoping it lives up to half of its potential!

On a related note, way back in grad school (late 80’s?) I had to good fortune to take a seminar from John McCarthy, pioneer of artificial intelligence as a field (and coiner of the term) and the man that developed the Lisp programming language. One of the most memorable moments was a lengthy discussion of whether a thermostat was intelligent; McCarthy argued that it was, much to the consternation of many of the grad students in the room. Without cracking the lid too far on that can of worms for the moment, it’s certainly clear that our Nest thermostat is a whole heck of a lot “smarter” than the programmable jobby we took down today, which was in turn muchly “smarter” than the old analog spring thermostat that was on the wall when we moved in.

Me thinks we just installed a bit of the future, and it’s whole tons of fun!

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2 Responses to Jeepers! We’re living in the future!

  1. Ian Buck says:

    I want the future! That seems like the kind of thing that would be perfect as a Google Glass app.

    Emacs keyboard shortcuts: No. Just no.

    • Phi says:

      That would be really cool as a Glass app – nice idea.

      I’m pretty sure there’s an Android app, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s working on a glass app.

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