The Intelligent Fridge

Once upon a time, a technologist in need of some extra cash decided to develop the intelligent fridge. S/he reckoned a device that could work out what was inside it and communicate this directly to the supermarket would be a sure seller. All the technology existed to make it a reality.

And so development began. An analysis of the problem identified the key elements required of the technology. Each item would require a chip or barcode so that the fridge could identify it; the bar code already existed. The scanning technology existed to make this possible – until the technologist realised that users would need to scan each item as they took it out and replaced it, something that would be less than 100% reliable.

No matter, taking inspiration from airport x-ray scanners, the technologist devised a system where the fridge could scan the items within it at regular intervals – once it had worked out how to ‘see’round items that were obscuring others. This was Progress. But another issue presented itself: while the fridge could now identify its contents, it could not ascertain their state of emptiness. How was it possible to know how much milk was left inside a bottle, or how many olives inside a jar? And given the varying consumption rates of different items, how could it work out when things actually needed replacing? Maybe the fridge needed to learn the item-by-item use-rates of its users.

Undeterred, the technologist deployed the weighing technology used in supermarket self-checkouts. The fridge would contain weight-sensitive pads that could sense small changes in the contents of the containers. There was only one problem: it meant that each item needed a distinct allocated place within the fridge and relied on the user to replace each item accurately each time.

No matter, the technologist reasoned, surely it is possible to combine these technologies so that the fridge recognises products and weighs each no matter where it is positioned. But this meant the installation of highly complex weighing systems that were not confused by the varying size of products or the infinity of subtle variations in the positions of those items.

The costs of manufacturing the technology started to soar; No problem, the technologist thought, time and mass-production will reduce these costs. A few prototypes were built and put into homes for trial. They were an instant flop.

The technologist conducted user-surveys to find out why the fridges were not meeting needs. They were identifying, counting and weighing successfully, and the guinea-pigs had not had to pay the now vastly-inflated price of the fridges. Why were people not going home to find the supermarkets delivering precisely what their fridges knew they wanted?

The fridges, it seemed were over-ordering, and people were being inundated. The technologist had resorted to using sell-by dates to work out what needed replacing, ignorant of the fact that these were often set by supermarkets to increase consumption rather than as a true indication of perishabillity.

The technologist built in a date-bias to compensate – only to find out that some goods were now perishing and turning the fridges green. Further adjustments were made, but still the users were finding that the fridge could not make the correct decisions. More consultation ensued.

The answer came as a bolt from the blue. As one user put it: “I don’t want the same stuff every week – and sometimes I change my mind at short notice. My fridge can’t know that”. A second user added, “The increased hassle outweighs the benefits”.

From a conversation had last week, the above may go some way to explaining why intelligent fridges have yet to make a major impact on our homes.

I have been reading a number of blog posts written by people who have attended various educational seminars and conferences that have taken place recently. As usual, I’m afraid they both leave me cold, and make me wonder what on earth they really have to do with teaching specific young people. Far be it from me to say that such conferences should not exist, nor that teachers should not use their personal time attending them – maybe the distinctly unscientific ‘inspiration factor’ is their real raison d’être… but I do wonder whether the outcomes really add much to the day-to-day job of teaching real people.

Parts of the profession show no sign of ending their faith that the future of education lies in the technical fix. I have not been to such conferences, so I accept that my view may be inaccurate – but I do take the trouble to read people’s reports, and they make me no more inclined to attend. As the fridge story shows, no amount of ‘science’ can overcome the simple fact that people are not logical, predictable (learning) machines but are unreliable, quixotic animals the reasons behind whose real needs no rational, technology-based system will ever fully fathom.

The only way to make it work will be to turn people themselves into machines – and that is something I will resist at every turn. Instead, I think I will continue to develop my understanding of the human species and its needs by my much-enjoyed pastime of people-watching. Come to think of it, maybe that’s where the real benefit of those conferences could lie after all…

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