Smart houses and domotics

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Science Robotics  21 Nov 2018:
Vol. 3, Issue 24, eaav6015
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aav6015


What made smart houses scary in 1909 makes them now essential.

For more than 100 years, science fiction has speculated on what the popular press calls the Internet of Things smart houses or what engineers call “domotics,” a portmanteau of “domestic robotics.” From the very beginning, science fiction has highlighted the potential negative aspects of smart houses, but the emerging positive benefits almost certainly outweigh these fears.

The speculation about domotics and what it would mean for humanity started in 1909, when E. M. Forster published “The Machine Stops” (1), which is considered the first science fiction work about smart houses (2). The short story was written as primitive vacuum cleaners and other labor-saving devices were being introduced into affluent households and extends those disruptions into a description of a distant future where an aging female professional lives and works happily alone in her automated underground smart home. As the title gives away, the blemish on the future is her overdependence on the technology.

The theme of overdependence on smart home technology retreated into the background during the economic, technological, and political upheavals after World War II. In 1950, amid the Cold War, Ray Bradbury considered a near future in There Will Come Soft Rains (3), where humans were intelligent enough to create smart houses but not intelligent enough to avoid nuclear war. In 1966, 3 years after Honeywell promoted their ECHO IV prototype of an automated kitchen (4), Philip K. Dick took capitalism to a logical extreme in his novel Ubik (5). In Ubik, occupants live in smart houses that charge for producing a cup of coffee or for opening the front door, so the occupant can go to work. Imagine trying to negotiate late payments and loans with Alexa or Siri, especially if they could see your bank balance and employment history! As if the idea of a smart house nickel-and-diming its occupants was not scary enough, Dean Koontz’s 1973 best-selling novel (6) (and terrible movie) Demon Seed introduced the pervasive trope of an evil artificial intelligence system imprisoning occupants inside their smart houses.

Despite the cautionary tone in science fiction, advances in computing and control fostered progress toward nonfiction smart houses. The X10 home automation standard for using power lines to connect appliances was established in 1975 (7), and although that technology never caught on, by 1999, smart houses had become such an accepted expectation of the future that Disney offered up a family comedy movie, Smart House. Smart houses were finally realized in a commercially viable form in 2010 with the start-up company Nest that exploited the internet. The current technological hurdle is no longer reliable connectivity, but a network that can manage potentially hundreds (or thousands) of appliances, sensors, and actuators securely. For example, an episode of the 2013 buddy human-robot cop television series Almost Human explored the ethical and legal dilemma of well-meaning homeowners adding weaponized home security to a smart house. The novel twist was not weaponization but instead who would be liable if such a system were hacked and an accidental death resulted.

One aspect of the discussion of smart houses that has been missing from science fiction is the benefits. The initial motivation for smart houses was energy savings, with the X10 standard coming into existence during a period of energy insecurity. Energy savings remains an important motivator; after all, Nest started with a thermostat. Safety is emerging as another incentive for adoption, with security cameras advertising how they prevent package thefts and break-ins and smoke detectors that can call the fire department. Less primal concerns of personal convenience and entertainment may influence smart house acceptance. For every application that proposes to feed your dog when you cannot get home in time, there is one that lets you play whack-a-mole on the edge of your bathtub (8).

Assisted living, where the house helps its occupants age in place or cope with injuries, may be more compelling than energy savings, safety, or convenience. The features that make a smart house safe and convenient for anyone can help a senior with memory or mobility problems. After all, the intelligence needed to remind occupants about getting milk should transfer to reminding them to take their medicine. A smart house can be thought of as a very large health monitoring app with more sensors than an Apple watch or Fitbit to provide information and context. For someone living alone, the increased security of a smart house can add peace of mind both from break-ins and from self-inflicted worries, for example, existing products can turn off a stove that has been left on. Although robot vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers may be less mechatronically innovative than a humanoid caretaker or companion robot (such as Robot in the movie Robot and Frank), it is exciting to consider how a house itself can be an unequivocal domestic robot. As a large-scale robot, a house can open doors, adjust beds and furniture to make getting up safer for disabled occupants, and even lower and raise kitchen cabinets to make it easier to reach stored items.

Perhaps the ultimate counterpoint to the anxiety first posed more than 100 years ago in The Machine Stops can be found in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. In the aftermath of the devastation and population displacement, researchers converted some of the temporary housing into smart houses that allowed the elderly, mostly women, to maintain their independence and to have a social community through the internet (9). Unlike 1909, the real fear about smart houses may not be about us becoming overly dependent on them, but rather that domotics will not be ready in time to enable us to remain as independent as we want to be.


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