[Reposted from my Red Herring blog, 2005]

When modern architecture emerged in the first years of the last century, it threw down a gauntlet at the feet of traditional neoclassical and academic architecture. Modernism’s style was stripped-down and functional. It celebrated the beauty of machines and the art of engineering, and expressed itself in concrete and steel, rather than brick and wood. Most important, it declared that the future would never again look like the past: from now on, architecture would be about innovation and change, not about working with timeless principles and eternal proportions.

Implicitly at first, and then consciously, architectural exhibits became predictions. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion house, first exhibited in 1927, exemplifies how modern architecture backed into the futures business. The Dymaxion house was a hexagonal structure, suspended from a central load- and services-bearing column. Virtually everything in it was made of aircraft-grade medal. The house wouldn’t be built on-site, like traditional houses; instead, it would be mass-produced, like cars or cans of peas, and delivered to owners.

Soon “the home of the future” became a stock element of every architectural exhibit, World’s Fair, forward-looking corporate display, or popular magazine special issue. (Even World War II couldn’t derail them: a 1943 brochure showed a couple admiring a neighborhood of modern houses under the caption, “After total war can come total living.”) Sporting automated kitchens, robot butlers, furniture that you washed with a high-pressure hose, and helipads (the long, sad story of why we don’t have personal helicopters or jet packs will have to wait for another time), these houses were sleek temples of convenience, promises of a world in which the home would be as frictionless and worry-free as a department store.

Of course, almost none of this has come to pass. Instead, the “home of the future” projects serve as textbook examples of how you can get the future wrong, and why.

Consider the 1950 Popular Mechanics article, “Miracles of the Next Fifty Years.” As Geoffrey Nunberg argued, the essay—which is a perfectly reasonable example of the “home of the future” genre—suffered from two problems.

The first is that, as Paul Saffo would put it, it mistakes a clear view for a short distance. Its all-plastic, shiny surface future is one that takes 1950 styling trends and extrapolates them into the future. It’s the kind of future in which tail fins have grown and grown, reaching astronomical proportions and becoming the vehicle. The future is today’s coolest stuff covering the world. This habit, as Nunberg puts it, of “taking some recent innovation at the steepest point of its curve and projecting it linearly to a point where it has swept all its predecessors aside,” is a particularly easy one to fall into in an age when rapid change seems to be the norm.

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The second problem is that it doesn’t have any space for demographic, social, or cultural change. In the Popular Mechanics future, Mom would stay at home with the robots, hosing down the house after Dad had flown off to work in his personal helicopter. Now, if there’s any single change in the last 50 years that’s most powerfully affected everything about home life, it’s been the wholesale movement of women out of the house, and the emergence of women as economically independent members of their households. Nothing about the house has been unaffected by women working outside it. We don’t have plastic furniture and floors, but the widespread acceptance of prepared foods, the popularity of home security systems, the transformation of the minivan into the family living room—none of it would have happened had June stayed home, waiting for Dad, Ward and the Beaver.

It’s easy to focus on the flash; it’s harder to see the slower, deeper changes that will really have a profound impact on the way we live.

Like many futures, the smart home is arriving late and in unexpected ways. For most of the twentieth century, “smart home” projects were either whiz-bang demos of The Amazing Future, or corporate agitprop—Your Future, brought to you by General Electric. But in the last ten years or so, the smart home has grown up.

What’s happened is that the smart home has become a laboratory. It’s gone from being a place where the future is on display, to a place where the future is uncovered and experimented with. Smart home projects at places like Georgia Tech and MIT are filled with sensors and video cameras, and are designed to allow engineers to observe how people actually live with furniture with health monitoring technology, or smart medicine cabinets, or ambient displays. There are two things notable about this new generation of smart home research, things that offer some clues about what the smart home of the future might really be like, and how we might get there.

First, there are actually several different kinds of “smarts” that a smart house could possess, each with different aims and missions, and appeal to different kinds of people. Today, you can buy systems that are essentially remote controls for your whole house: central displays that let you program the dishwasher from your bathroom, or turn on the home theatre from the kitchen. These are basically convenience devices. At another level are infrastructure control systems, which manage heating and cooling, turn off lights in unused rooms, or schedule household tasks for off-peak times. These systems are mainly designed to conserve consumption of energy and water. Other systems aim to be more like software agents for the kitchen, helping you figure out what you can make with the nearly-random contents of your refrigerator, sending orders to the online grocer, and suggesting dishes for this weekend’s dinner party.

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Two other kinds of smart home systems are aimed mainly at the elderly. One connects elders who are still active but live alone with family and friends. These might remind a user that they haven’t talked with a relative in a few days (or, for more distant relatives, weeks), or link with calendaring systems to schedule get-togethers with neighbors. They might also analyze a resident’s sleep and activity patterns, and alert a child or doctor if an elderly parent’s routine shifts dramatically—an indication that something could be wrong. Other, more complex systems are designed to assist elders who have problems with household tasks or memory. These might consist of monitoring devices in rooms or furniture that closely follow vital signs, provide guidance in preparing meals and other daily tasks, and warn against potential dangers—an unattended pot boiling over, a bath that’s too hot, clutter on the floor that could create a hazard.

Almost all of these systems exemplify a second big shift in thinking about how smart, and how active, a smart home should be. The ideal smart house used to be one that would be able to take care of everything for you—become a “machine for living in,” to borrow modern architect Le Courbusier’s phrase. A lot of current work on the smart house, in contrast, aims to create systems that help residents do things, instead of doing things for them. Some engineers still dream of creating adaptive houses that learn and cater to residents’ preferences; but as MIT professor Stephen Intille put it in a description of the House_n project, “our primary vision is not one where computer technology ubiquitously and proactively manages the details of the home. Technology should require human effort in ways that keep life as mentally and physically challenging as possible as people age.” Work on communications and monitoring systems has taken off thanks in part to the discovery of a clear relationship between isolation and depression: elders are much more likely to stay active when their social lives are active, and they’re in touch with family and friends. Likewise, there’s evidence that remaining mentally and physically active can help elders fight the appearance of Alzheimer’s. Having a house that takes care of you, in other words, can be bad for you.

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So how will the smart home arrive? Here’s a short list of broad predictions.

First, there will be no single “smart home.” People who are interested in shrinking their energy budgets may never be in the market for a virtual butler, and vice versa. Instead, there will be a wide variety of smart houses, all configured to the needs and interests of users.

Second, the smart home will be built up appliance by appliance, and room by room. Intelligence is much more likely to come to houses through smart appliances, and to grow up in devices that have a functional relationship—the appliances in a kitchen, for example—than from the top down. Construction companies have tended to exhibit less interest in smart home systems than electronics companies. If this continues, expect the smart house to be more of an emergent, ad-hoc thing.

Third, elders will be some of the earliest adopters. It’s cool to have a remote control for your house; but a system that will let your 80 year-old mother continue to live safely in her own house, which lets you know whether she’s doing okay, and which warns you if she gets ill or depressed will deliver a serious benefit that people will pay for. Technologies that allow elders to “age in place” will look even more appealing once you consider the high cost—both financial and psychological—of nursing homes, and the projected shortage of nurses throughout the rapidly-aging advanced world. Further, these are systems that have multiplier effects: unlike smart kitchens, assisted living systems deliver benefits to entire families, including children who live far away.

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