How smart is your house? I don't mean a smart-looking house, but a dwelling with some actual intelligence. Your present home is probably a big dummy, an inert collection of bricks and sticks squatting on its foundation -- a typical example of Lumpen architectura.
But given some recent advances in consumer electronics, you could, if you chose, live in a brainy house with intelligence, defined here as the ability to see relationships, make decisions and control the immediate environment. This means, if nothing else, that your house could be more responsive than the average teen-ager and probably smarter than your in-laws.
It is now possible -- at a relatively low cost for a simple setup -- to install a system that automatically attends to such basic needs as comfort, convenience, safety and security. Or, if you're willing to wait a few years and spend more money, you could eventually move into a new home controlled by computers and so perspicacious it will do everything from cook your meals to keep an infrared eyeball locked on the kids.
These houses won't be dumb -- that is, mute. They'll talk in smooth, synthesized voices, crooning you to sleep or alerting you to the status of your furnace or your convalescent parent dozing in the guest room. More about talkative houses in a moment. First, a bit of history:
Intelligent houses have always been a popular subject for science-fiction writers. Back in the '30s and '40s, futurists promised an incredible post-war world of automated abodes that would "free the housewife" from the drudgery of cooking and cleaning. Technology eventually gave us wondrous appliances, but we never got the integrated houses that ran everything automatically. But then, some visionaries who saw a darker side may have thought that was a good thing.
In 1953, for instance, master storyteller Ray Bradbury wrote a funny-but-sad tale called "The Murderer." Its protagonist, Albert Brock, lives in a world infested with piped-in music and cheerful, blabby homes. Addled by the din of constant communication, Brock slips a cog and fires a couple of slugs into his chatty home's front door (right in the keyhole). Then he stuffs his telephone down the garbage disposal and shoots the talking stove. Brock is judged insane (he crunches the psychiatrist's wrist communicator between his teeth) because only a madman could be unhappy in a house that looked after his every need.
But if you're not put off by the idea of living in a dutiful house, you can smarten up your old manse by installing some relatively inexpensive modular controls for lighting, security and heating. Here's how a typical simple system (costing about $100) works:
First you plug a controller -- a multi-button panel no bigger than a hard-cover book -- into a wall receptacle. Then you replace wall switches and outlets with special modules. Press a button on the controller and it zaps a coded signal through your house wiring to the appropriate module, turning circuits -- selected lamps, appliances and overhead lights -- on and off by remote.
Each button on the control panel affects a module or group of modules (with as many modules as you wish in each group), so you could -- from your bedroom, for example -- control all your lighting, TVs and bagel toaster without lifting your head from the pillow. Isn't science grand? This basic system can be refined by adding a telephone responder (activate modules by calling home, using the phone buttons as controller); a security interface (lights flash and sirens wail when sensors detect trespassers); and a computer interface (create a program that automatically triggers modules according to your schedule).
This only describes a limited do-it-yourself system with an on-off mentality -- not an intrinsically smart home able to make minute adjustments and judgments based on data it receives.
The Smart House is no longer sci-fi but current technology, according to the National Association of Home Builders, which has registered the name as a trademark. The NAHB -- whose 143,000 members build 85 percent of all U.S. homes -- and a consortium of manufacturers, utilities, trade associations and government agencies are working to put the first Smart Houses on the market in 1990.
These new houses (and, later, retrofitted ones) will use existing technology and an entirely new electrical system, the first major residential wiring change in 100 years: a single computer- controlled cable carrying electricity, audio-video, data and communication signals to outlets everywhere in the house. At its simplest, this means you'll be able to plug your stereo speakers or telephones into any wall receptacle -- no extra wiring or jacks needed.
But more important, all appliances will run on a "closed loop." Start your microwave, for example, and it will identify itself to any of several area computer controllers, which will then release the appropriate amount of electricity. Should the oven malfunction, the house -- which constantly monitors itself -- will instantly cut the power to only that device, alerting you with its synthetic voice or by flashing a message on your TV screen. Similarly, if a child bites into an electric cord, the house, knowing it hasn't received the appropriate signal, will shut down power to that line. Smart Houses will substantially reduce the chance of accidental electrocutions, which account for about 200 deaths annually in the United States.
You'll need new "smart" appliances for Smart House living, but the devices will be safer and more efficient. And you'll never set another timer because the house will tell you when a roast is done or the dishes are dry. The house will also learn and remember your daily schedule (by hearing you call out "goodbye" when you leave home, for example) and automatically heat and cool rooms according to occupancy and time of day, so your overall energy costs could decline.
Smart Houses will be a godsend to the elderly and infirm (motion detectors could sense a lack of normal activity and call for help); the hearing- and sight-impaired (houses can communicate audibly or visually); and the physically disabled (everything could be voice- and remote-controlled).
This sounds wonderful on paper. Maybe it is, but advances in technology always exact a social price. Smart Houses will improve life (at least for those who can afford them), but they'll also cause new problems -- perhaps creating a My-Home-Is-My-Fortress elite, worsening the decline of public places. It's such a new concept that nobody knows what the consequences will be. Except maybe Albert Brock. ::