A longstanding questions has ben whether technology can eliminate the planned obsolescence that seems built in to so many electronic devices. Many people have tried to change this situation with devices that can expand and add to their original functionality by updating software and firmware. so far that goal has proved very elusive to the point of seeming impossible. However, here’s a hopeful story about the Nest Thermostat that is making a bold attempt at just that.
The Nest thermostat has made recent improvement that suggests that the story of built in obsolescence may be very different for home devices. As thermostats, refrigerators, stoves, washing machines, coffee machines, dishwashers, sprinkler systems, and just about every other traditional system in the house starts to communicate with the web, something odd might start to happen: Instead than getting older and becoming less capable every year, these devices will keep getting better.
There are some technical explanations for this. “One of the reasons that Apple doesn’t do releases on old devices is that they’re bound by the CPU, the horsepower, or memory, or the battery—but we’re not constrained by that,” Nest’s Rogers says. (Like many others at Nest, Rogers is a former employee of Apple.) Nest has its own onboard processor, but if it ever gets outdated or overwhelmed, it can offload processing tasks to the cloud. At its core a thermostat is “just a switch,” Rogers observes, and “we’re applying intelligence to how we use that switch.”
Beyond the fact that a Nest you install today won’t necessarily become obsolete, it is important to note that the proliferation of new Nests works to keep improving current Nests. Now that these thermostats have been operating in homes across the country for a year, their sensors have recorded large amounts of information about how people adjust temperatures. After stripping any identifying details from the data recorded by your Nest, the company compiles it with information recorded by other Nests. Then it analyzes the data to look for ways to improve the device’s algorithms. “We can see temperature history, away history, and then we test to see how well our algorithm performed,” says Rogers.
For example: Auto Away is a built-in system for turning off your heating or cooling by noticing when you’re gone. In the original version the algorithm was very set. “We’d always wait two hours without seeing people in the house and then turn it down, and if they came home we’d turn it back up,” Rogers says. But by analyzing the user data, Nest detected some important subtleties. “We found that morning patterns are very regular—when people leave in the morning, they’re gone,” Rogers says. So now, after an update, the Nest turns off your heating or cooling much sooner in the morning than it would at any other time of the day. Rogers points out that, “The morning is the coldest time of the day, and electricity is also expensive then, so turning on Auto Away sooner can make a big difference—now the Nest won’t waste energy heating your home when nobody’s there.”