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A Personal Robot Learns to Manage Home Heating, Air Conditioning, Thermostat

A Personal Robot Learns to Manage Home Heating, Air Conditioning, Thermostat

The tech world was buzzing last week on news that Google will acquire Nest Labs for $3.2 billion. Nest Labs makes the innovative Nest Learning Thermostat, which looks like something Apple would design – if Apple made thermostats – because it was created by former Apple developer Tony Fadell, a father of the iPod. Nest thermostats are so cool, you can buy one for $250 at the Apple Store.

Founded just four years ago by two former Apple employees, Fadell and Matt Rogers, Nest has sold about 1 million of the sleek, wall-mounted heating and cooling controllers since launching the product two years ago. Fadell’s product magic made billions for Apple. Will consumers be seduced by a sexy thermostat enabled with artificial intelligence and machine learning?

Alabama’s Home Energy Problem

Alabama households have the second highest annual electric consumption in the United States. That’s partly because only 38% of Alabama homes are heated with natural gas, and largely because electric power is required for summer air conditioning and year-round humidity control. Low electric rates help, but many families are burdened by excessive energy costs.

How Do I Take Control of High Utility Bills?

You can minimize energy costs by managing home heating, air conditioning, and hot water systems with a thermostat, which controls equipment based on temperature settings. Researchers say thermostats can control about 60% of energy used in the home, so managing the thermostat will make or break your monthly utility budget. The key to success in managing home energy bills is active engagement by the home occupant.

A pre-programmed thermostat for your heating and air conditioning system will save money by keeping the winter indoor temperature at 68 degrees and summer cooling set at 78 degrees. You can save even more money by programming the thermostat to reduce (set back) the temperatures at night or when you are away. (Why pay to heat and cool when nobody’s home?)

Anyone who cares about getting indoor comfort right has experienced the frustration of dealing with the thermostat, so it was way past due for reinvention. One look at the thermostat on your wall probably won’t even tell you what the temperature is, because most are impossible to read without a flashlight and magnifying glass.

Programmable thermostats are supposed to save energy and manage indoor comfort. Just set up the device with your daily schedule through a menu-driven interface and these electronic timers will manage system operation to your daily schedule, and save energy too. Frustrating to read and confusing to set-up, few people ever program them correctly, much less update the thermostat as schedules and seasons change.

Energy studies have concluded programmable thermostats do not deliver expected energy savings when compared to homes without programmable thermostats and two found programmable thermostats resulted in higher energy consumption than homes with manual thermostats. Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab say, that to be effective, an energy-saving home thermostat must result in savings simply by installing the new device without any additional consumer action.

Nest Doesn’t Look Like a Robot, She Just Learns and Thinks Like One

The Nest thermostat learns your home heating and cooling comfort preferences, then manages your system autonomously and turning down the system when the home is empty.
The Nest thermostat learns your home heating and cooling comfort preferences, then manages your system autonomously, based on your preferences and daily schedule. The functional interface is easy to read, too.

The radical innovation with the Nest is, it’s not a programmable thermostat, but a learning robot. Once installed it learns your preferences continuously. Just set the preferred temperature at different times of day and by the end of the week Nest knows your preferences for both comfort and economy. She continues to learn over time as you fine tune heating and cooling set points or make seasonal adjustments. The built-in motion sensor will autonomously set back to save energy when you are away.

The Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal says, at its core, Nest is a robotics company, pointing out development of Nest’s learning technology was led by roboticist Yoky Matsuoka, vice president of technology at Nest. The 2007 MacArthur Fellow described how her background in robotics and neurobiology led her to Nest Labs. “It deals in sensing, automation, and control. It may not make a personable, humanoid robot, but it is producing machine intelligences that can do things in the physical world.” Say Matsuoka.

Part of Google’s motivation for buying Nest Labs is they’ve established a beachhead for personal robots at home, ushering in the era of substitution for the consumer market. Nest Learning Thermostat doesn’t look like Rosie from the Jetsons, but she possesses the algorithms and artificial intelligence prerequisite to more advanced systems now under development at Google, including self-driving cars.

Nest Smart Grid

Last summer Nest launched it’s energy services business for utility demand response. In California, Nest owners receive cash incentives for participating in utility energy reduction programs to manage summer peak loads. A regional Nest system can behave like a smart grid of thermostats, creating a virtual power plant of reduced demand on the grid to help utilities meet demand and avoid brown-outs. That’s not likely to happen in Alabama where electric demand has been declining and electric rates low.

Nest Lab co-founders Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers said utility demand response was part of the plan from the outset and proclaimed Nest has accumulated one terawatt hour in energy savings from the one million thermostats sold since 2011. The company is currently shipping about 40,000 Nest thermostats per month and Nest marketing says homeowners are cutting energy bills by an average 19% each year.

Matt Rogers says Nest Learning Thermostat does all the hard work of managing indoor comfort at home. In a 2012 interview with he said “Everybody likes to save energy and save money, but to ask them to change their lifestyle is a challenge. Instead, we give them all the tools to do it and lead them along the way. Nest sets the example because it already knows what temperatures promote energy conservation, and notes when users are saving money by displaying a little green leaf. You have that insight as opposed to having no idea and flying blind.”

The Robots Are Coming

The self-driving car is a learning robot, too.
Google wants your home and your car to be autonomous, so you can place your thoughts elsewhere.

What to other robotics experts have to say about Nest and Google? “Consider Google’s autonomous cars,” says Sonia Chernova, director of Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Robot Autonomy and Interactive Learning (RAIL) lab, when interviewed by National Geographic. “That’s very much a robotics technology—Google hired a lot of the top robotics researchers to make that vehicle. A robot is something that senses the world, reasons about that information, and acts in response to that information. Beyond that, the shape and function of the robot is limited only by our imagination and skill”.

Ongoing robotic research is developing robots that can work side by side with humans. One of the most innovative robotic companies has been Willow Garage in Menlo, Park, California, builders of the open-platform PR2 robot. Researchers at Cornell are using a PR2 to develop the artificial intelligence systems necessary so machines can act as assistive robots by anticipating actions and responses for interacting with humans in a day-to-day environment.

–Brian Brainerd

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