Hello, Science? I was led to believe that this far past 2001, I would have my own personal space odyssey featuring a homicidal red-eyed computer, a hoverboard and fem-bots. Don’t get me wrong — I love my flying-saucer-shaped vacuum cleaner, my video phone and especially my talking car. But this just isn’t future-y enough for me. What’d make me happy? How about a robot house?
Oh, you say I have one already?
In an article in Science Magazine, super-genius professor Diane J. Cook runs down the many ways in which mini-computers have wormed their way into unexpected corners of our homes, “making our environments more intelligent and responsive to our needs.” The coffee maker with a timer, the thermostat that only turns on when the temperature dips below 63 degrees, the dryer that shuts off when your clothes are dry rather than running a full 70-minute cycle — those are all tiny microprocessor versions of Rosey, the robot on the Jetsons.
According to Cook, the automations available in homes are getting steadily more sophisticated. As more and more items within the home are designed to gather data, artificial intelligence is brought into play, using that information to predict what we’ll want next — whether it’s a third cup of coffee, a reading light, or even a doctor’s appointment.
Keeping homes energy-efficient is the most obvious (and perhaps least potentially creepy) use of this Rosie-the-Ranch-House technology. Imagine never having to nag the kids to turn off the light — the house does that by itself! No need to worry about whether you turned off the stove — you can check on that from the road. Utility companies like PG&E have started using “smart meters” to help people identify spikes in use of electricity, water, or natural gas, making it easier for them to curb their use (and therefore their bills).
Several studies have explored the use of these potential android A-frames as giant health-monitoring devices. Many of us already use health-monitoring apps such as FitBits to keep track of our blood pressure, blood sugar, weight, and exercise. Professor Cook says we can use the data collected at home to alert family members (or ourselves) to behavior changes that could possibly signal dementia or autism. Of course, that makes you wonder: what other behaviors would such a system monitor? Yikes!
The most far-out use of a Bionic bungalow — yet one that is probably nearer than we think — is in the murky area of social interaction and marketing. It’s unclear exactly how this would work, but Cook suggests that our behavior at home could be used to suggest or influence our shopping decisions. It may sound like a bit much, but then, most of us happily log on to Facebook, which does something similar. As with any new technology, there’ll be those who think it’s awesome and those who warm up to it much more slowly. (Remember those outliers who refused to carry cell phones?).
Then again, the recent passing of the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury brings to mind two short stories: “There Will Come Soft Rains,” in which an automated house gamely continues to care for inhabitants long destroyed by a mysterious war, and “The Veldt,” in which a Holodeck-style nursery gets hacked by evil, spoiled brats.
I’m not too worried about that, though. Hand those evil kids an iPhone with Angry Birds going and they’ll be disarmed for good. Then I can get back to swimming laps in my bathtub pool. Thanks, future!