June 20, 2017
Do we need robots in the kitchen?
by Paul Carroll
Although I believe in the capabilities of technology as much as anyone, breathless articles sometimes set me off. I will now rant about one, because I think these articles should be a warning about how even smart people can get sucked in by the possibilities of digital technology of the sort that is currently turning insurance on its head. (Yes, if I’m honest, I also want to vent a little.)
The article that made my head explode (most recently) described how great it would be to live in a connected home where you would wake up to the smell of bacon that had automatically started cooking on your stove just minutes before your alarm went off. Sounds great, right? Who doesn’t love the smell of bacon in the morning (or the afternoon or evening)? Everything is better with bacon.
But think for a moment. Who put the bacon in the skillet? You did, unless there’s a robot involved here that the article didn’t describe. When did you put the bacon in the skillet? The night before. Do you really want to eat bacon that has been sitting out all night? I don’t, no matter how good it smells.
This lack of thinking through an issue from beginning to end is not an isolated event. The bacon idea is actually just a variant of the hoary notion that, on the way home from work, we’ll turn on our microwaves remotely and start cooking our dinner (which has been sitting, unrefrigerated, in the microwave all day). People have been touting the idea of internet toasters and refrigerators for many years, even though the toaster has no conceivable use and the refrigerator actually sits in the middle of a complex issue that isn’t solved just by connecting it to the internet—no, I don’t want the refrigerator ordering milk for me simply because I’ve run out, and I certainly don’t want it managing my whole shopping list.
The lack of thorough thinking isn’t new. It has been going on at least since I started covering the world of technology for the Wall Street Journal in 1986. And the thinking infects even people and companies that should know much better. In April 1988, I wrote an article on the front page of the second section that described how even some very savvy companies made their products worse through digital technology. BMW added electronics to some top-line cars that required a 40-minute video to explain; just the section on locking and unlocking the car required three minutes. Buick so confused drivers that some who tried to turn down the radio wound up turning off the air conditioning. When some of the geekiest of the geeks in Silicon Valley—including the CEO of Sun Microsystems and a future CEO of Microsoft—went bowling, they couldn’t figure out how to use the digital scoring system.
I haven’t quite given up hope. But I’m close, given the persistence of the thinking that it’s good to do things digitally just because it’s possible to do them digitally.
I thought I should at least call the issue to your attention. We’re smarter about so many things than we were in 1988. Let’s get smarter, too, about how digital technology fits (and doesn’t fit) in end-to-end solutions.
Rant over. Thanks for hearing me out.