How Smart Do You Want Them To Be?

Today, every Thing seems to be smart. From smart phones to smart appliances to smart… whatever. Some of these devices are probably justified, but do I need a smart door lock? Or a smart light switch? Often, “smart” simply refers to the ability to control the device from a smartphone. I’ll let you decide if you want to pay for this convenience with an involuntary invitation for Russian hackers to do a virtual tour of your house. However, there are certainly cases, in which the price for “smart” is no longer acceptable.

Recently, I ran across a “smart” circuit breaker in Italy. A photo is on the right. Notice the typical breaker bar (black) in the oval opening at the bottom of the device.

A circuit breaker is an important safety device. If the circuit runs a higher current than the wiring allows, there is a real risk of fire and other damage. Therefore, a breaker typically trips after a few seconds of overload. The short 2-3 second delay serves to prevent tripping by commonly encountered startup transients of heavy loads. The delay should not be longer, however, because each second of overload increases the risk.

Not so the breakers I am writing about. These actually wait for several minutes. And while they wait, they display a message “Ridurre Carico…” — Reduce current. Helpfully, the message continues “Too much current … reduce current … by 17%”.  The breaker was protecting a small apartment, which admittedly had a number of high-wattage devices, including a washing machine, two water heaters, a stove and, yes, a toaster. Using each of them individually was fine, but any combination of two devices caused the breaker to trip after several minutes.

What gives? If the breaker is intended to protect the circuit, it should trip almost immediately. Since it does not, I have to assume that its purpose is not protection but reeducation. After the apartment goes dark, you find your flashlight, go outside, find the breaker box, and reset the breaker. It then continues to tell you by how much your current load… no, I’d better call it allocation… is exceeded. Now you have a few minutes to turn off your electrical load(s), or the breaker trips again. Based on my observations, I assume that these devices are supposed to reduce overall power consumption rather than protect the house.

Is this the future of “smart” devices? The municipal government — if my assumption is correct, of course — imposes some arbitrary current limit and cuts you off it you don’t obey… comply, I mean. It feels to me as if this is a tent flap already being lifted by the camel’s nose. This is not voluntary. It is imposed.

How would such a breaker change people’s behavior? Those who lived in the apartment simply made sure that the loads were turned on sequentially, not simultaneously. An annoying inconvenience, to be sure, but certainly not the presumed power savings. In fact, if this was my apartment, I’d build a device that sequentially connects the power loads depending on a simple priority schedule.

If my assumption is correct, we have yet another example of overreach by the authorities with minimal benefits at best (and who defines what counts as benefits?)

There will be some who applaud such measures and likely call for even more stringent controls, such as disallowing sequential use of high-power devices. After all, it is for the common good, right? For those I have the following question: Where do you draw the line? At what point would you consider a government intrusion into your private lives unacceptable? Because with “smart” devices, under government control, there is no limit to government intrusion. And once “smart” devices are widespread enough, controlling them centrally is but a small step. Remotely control your power consumption? They already do that, see above. Turn off your A/C at 5:00 pm? Definitely possible. Monitor your water consumption and give you a ticket if you shower too much? Sure, why not. Remotely open your smart door lock for a no-knock warrant? No problem here. Warrant? How old-fashioned…

If this is truly the future of smart devices, I think we need to put a foot on it. After all, who needs the Stasi when all these functions can be automated and centralized?

If the future of smart devices includes imposed government access, we need to ask with the words of Juvenal, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — Who guards these guardians?

 

 

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