If the animated series The Jetsons is any indication, the topic of old-fashioned domesticity in a futuristic setting is an enduring obsession. The original incarnation of the series aired Sunday nights on the American Broadcasting Company network from September 23, 1962 to March 3, 1963. The adventures of George Jetson, his wife Jane, and their children Judy and Elroy entertained audiences at the beginning of the space race and the Apollo missions which eventually brought the first lunar landing to prime time television with Apollo 11 in 1969. At the time of its debut, The Jetsons was the first program ever to be broadcast in color on ABC—a milestone in itself. Its continuing popularity led to further episodes being produced for syndication between 1985 and 1987 while the Space Shuttle Program was well underway.
Daily life for the Jetsons was assisted by numerous labor-saving devices. Even in utopia, the failure of hardware, software, virtual assistants, and assistive devices provided for humorous plotlines, but the future is here and those problems have not been solved.
The premise of the equally popular, live-acted series Lost In Space, which aired from 1965-68, was based upon a malfunction during the 1997 launch of the Jupiter 2, meant to carry the Space Family Robinson to Alpha Centauri. Their mission was to relieve congestion on an overpopulated Earth. They never made it, but survived sabotage by a foreign secret agent, and bumbled from star system to star system in an attempt to return to Earth. Their robot, as well as many on board conveniences, a spacious bridge, glittering electronic panels, and a hydroponic garden figure heavily in the plot as the crippled ship limps around the galaxy.
We’re not gadding about in space yet, but robots and artificial intelligence play a part in real life today—and promise even more of a role in the near future. Our lives are being filled with smart phones that remember numbers and addresses for us, smart cars that drive for us, and smart appliances in houses that do the traditional jobs that humans don’t want to. Can they be relied upon to perform as programmed, or does their presence put humans at risk?
“Houses” by Mark Pantoja (featured in this issue), a story set after some post-apocalyptic event, examines the trope of these endearing cyborgs in much the same way as the 2009 Hugo Award winning film WALL-E portrayed a stark, desolate, desperate world abandoned by humans, orbiting the Earth in a spaceship under the control of a rogue AI.
Smart Houses: What’s Real and What’s Science Fiction?
Smart appliances are supposed to be symbols of simplicity and convenience, but the complexity of setting up systems to make life simpler might confound many home automation enthusiasts. Most devices require a central personal computer to provide control and to run programs and X10 modules that plug into the wall and communicate with a home computer. Numerous sensors, such as cameras, motion detectors or water leak detectors allow a person turn on and off lights and appliances via a website. Effectors can be used to automatically water plants, remotely raise and lower blinds, or feed pets.
Rebecca Day followed one family’s year-long process toward building their smart home, assisted by a team from Popular Mechanics, a resource not available to the majority of homeowners. The results confounded those interested in a house so complex it can simplify your life, eliminate clutter, save steps from the kitchen to check on the progress of food in the smoker, and save energy by controlling thermostats and interior/exterior lighting. (And cost you a fortune.) Once a basic system is set up, macros, or series of linked commands make it possible to assign multiple actions to a single button on the remote control. A macro can execute groups of commands on a pre-determined schedule.
For example, a homeowner could have the front porch lights activate when dusk falls, then dim to 25 percent brightness an hour later, and finally turn off at midnight—but if motion is detected, the lights could be set to turn on again, perhaps along with a clock-radio alarm.
So current versions of the smart house may live up to neither our hopes nor our fears of technology. They are not an easy way to let your house run itself while you are freed up to live your life. But they’re also certainly not a way that people will grow soft and spoiled, unable to care for themselves. Having a “house of the future” means knowing about technology, about technological compatibility, and about any recent breakthroughs that have been made. It also means constant problem solving, in matters from practical things like power supply interruptions to more cerebral matters like optimizing technological advancements to fit your daily lifestyle. It isn’t hunting and gathering, but it’s also not something for the intellectually lazy.
But what about the future, when these houses come pre-programmed for mass consumers?
I Have Seen the Future and It Might Not Be Pretty
Remote-controlled houses are very “now,” but a whole field of research is focused on blending high-tech computing into the home environment. Instead of interacting with a box on a table, occupants of the future will interact with an intelligent and friendly robotic home. That sounds more like the current ideal of the technologically-advanced, “lazy” future. But will it be designed for us, or will we be designed for it?
The most promising applications are designed to help elderly people live safely and independently. Simple sensors common to home security systems with advanced artificial intelligence can perform activity recognition and location estimation, both of which would enable the system to summon help if common patterns are disrupted. Nursebot—a trashcan-sized, wheeled robot designed to deliver medicine and reminders—even has grab bars so that elderly users can grab hold and stand up. This sounds like a perfect Smart House. It provides remote assistance most of the time, and direct help once in a while. But those who own Roombas know a little better how these automatic assistants work. Roomba vacuum owners spend an awful lot of time troubleshooting, cleaning, repairing, or rescuing it from fringed carpets well beyond the sensors meant to restrict its range and stairs it’s not supposed to fall down—but does. In order for that little cleaning machine to work, the house needs to be pre-cleaned.
And in order for robots to run, houses need to be pre-designed for them to move around in them. By why stop there? Cities with modified sidewalks that are wheelchair-friendly are also friendly to wheeled robots. The Toyota i-Foot is a two-legged throne that can already walk up and down stairs, technically making wheelchair ramps obsolete. But for those living in mountain or rural areas, older homes, or housing such as trailers a wheeled robot is useless, and even one with feet will need spaces of a certain size and width to walk through. Entire cities, once built to accommodate cars, will have to be designed and re-designed to accommodate bots that do the shopping for people.
The Ultra-Pre-Fab Home
Dishwashing droid prototypes like the ARMAR humanoid from the University of Karlsruhe require brightly colored plastic dishes. But are they dexterous enough to handle tasks like cooking and serving food? What happens if a specific ingredient is not available and they can’t taste to adjust seasonings or texture?
The future won’t be full of individualized homes, which people have customized while their robots are the ones checking on the roast. When consumer products became machine made instead of handmade, it lead to a boom in the amount of things people could have, but it shrunk the individuality of each person’s clothes, furnishings and knick-knacks. When machines make everything in a house, the roast will be pre-seasoned, with seasoning packets clearly marked and pre-packed. It will be a pre-determined size and stored in a certain place in the fridge, so the AI that runs the house can recognize it. When the cooking is done, it will be ferried out of the kitchen and into a dining room exactly set out on a carpet of a precise length—so the robot doesn’t trip over it. The food will be set on a kitchen with a specific kind of utensils, meant to be easily picked up, manipulated, and cleaned by whatever automated system runs the house.
A robot doesn’t need food, sleep, hugs, kisses, or thanks. It doesn’t ask to be paid, or demand respect. But that doesn’t mean that robots will be made to make life convenient for us. It’s more likely that our houses, our food, and our cities will be remade to make life easy for the robots … that make our life easy. With our food and our environments made over, our bodies will be as well.
Avoiding the scenarios portrayed in WALL-E, where humans are so soft and twisted that they have to glide around in motorized scooters, straws in supersized drinks within reach of their lips, will mean limiting exactly how much machines can be allowed to take on. Striking a balance between retaining the human elements of what makes a house a home, and the false convenience of machine-run everything may decide the physical fate of the human race.