THE SMART HOUSE
The bedsheets will talk to the fridge but will anyone listen to us?
2025 Chapter two, age twenty
“WHAT IS A typical day?” asks the author of a New York newsletter called SuperTrends 2025. We’re sitting at a trade-show booth in Chicago, and Jeanine Recckio is telling me all about the luscious lifestyle my 20-year-old daughter Elizabeth—she has outgrown “Lizzie” by this point—has 20 years from now.
“From the moment she wakes up, it’s a whole new world!” Recckio enthuses, leaving no doubt as to the ordinariness of the old one. “Everything talks to each other. Your daughter’s PDA knows that she has a very stressful day coming up, so it has told the alarm clock, which is definitely a scent alarm clock, not a radio or buzzer. So they have agreed on a puff of lavender and fennel.”
There were buttons and switches everywhere-buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.
E. M. FORSTER, THE ETERNAL MOMENT, 1928
“Did the computers consult with Elizabeth?” I wonder, but of course that sort of human intervention will be positively prehistoric in the year 2025.
“The bedsheets already have talked to the kitchen and the bathroom,” the boothholder goes on. Recckio worked for some of the big cosmetics houses before she struck out on her own in 1995 to become, by her own description, “the world’s only beauty and lifestyle futurist,” working out of her “sleek white offices” at 510 Madison Ave. in Manhattan, which happens to be where I used to deliver the mail, back in the Woodstock years.
“The sheets have done a biometric analysis of your daughter’s body and detected a vitamin deficiency,” she says, “and they have told the kitchen to prepare a special smoothie to restore the proper balance.”
“Who went to the grocery store and bought the fruit?” I tease her.
“Robots,” Recckio replies.
After breakfast, it’s time for a wash. “The bathroom is definitely a health and wellness network centre,” the seer says. “We’ll be under 24-hour surveillance. Inside the shower, there’s a body scan. It measures your energy level and your cellulite. It emails your personal trainer because it knows you ate that illegal cheesecake last night. It already has talked to the fridge and it is locking the door.”
Having scrubbed herself with a synthetic sponge that releases nano-bits of cleanser, Elizabeth exits the shower. Her hair robot performs two shampoos and a rinse cycle. She sprays on a suntan, pops a pill to change her hair colour, brushes her teeth with an ultraviolet laser, and checks the readout from her thermo-chromatic skin crystals. “The crystals will tell you seven days beforehand that your daughter is going to have a zit,” says Recckio. “And her toothbrush will know that she’s going to have a cold a week from now. The bristles will talk to her dentist.”
If she turns out to be as beautiful as her mother, Elizabeth won’t need any makeup, but there’s still the chance that she may be doomed to look like me.
“Makeup will be clear,” Recckio predicts. “You will talk to your digital mirror and say, ‘Please make my cheeks pink and my eyelashes black.’ ”
She goes on and on—“intuitive scents,” “vegan lipstick,” “self-sterilizing countertops,” “wearable robots,” “windows that clean themselves,” “fibre-optic plants,” “edible packaging,” “optical fibres in the textiles you wear,” “advertising on your shirt that constantly changes...
“A urine sample every time you flush!”
But Elizabeth’s morning routine is rudely interrupted.
“The videophone rings,” the beauty futurologist sighs. “It’s your mom. She’s 130 years old. She’s calling to say that she just got her new body parts!”
“You’re assuming that vanity will never die,” I tell her.
“It will only intensify,” she replies. “It’s all about human attraction. This goes back to caveman days.”
YOUR HOUSE WILL READ YOUR MIND
1. What’s for breakfast? After biometric bedsheets monitor vitamin levels, a bedside DNA box tests for viral infections, and your morning urine diagnostics counts cholesterol, the central computer sends the info to the kitchen so it can prepare the menu.
2. If the kettle hasn’t been turned on for tea in a while, sensors will call 911. Other sensors throughout the home will keep track of daily routines, turning on lights, appliances and opening blinds as you enter the room. Your PDA will tell your alarm clock you have a busy day tomorrow and to wake you early. Stressed? Your house will sense anxiety and automatically dim the light, maybe squirt a burst of lavender into the air and turn on soothing music.
“HOW DO YOU know that your supplements are working?” asks a brochure on the display table next to Jeanine’s. And here is a friendly man named Jun Adachi, inviting me to place my hand in a Pharmanex BioPhotonic Scanner to determine my Skin Carotenoid Score. “Twenty years from now, every physician and health-care facility will have one of these,” Adachi avers. “They will check your cholesterol, your blood pressure, and they will want to know, what is your antioxidant level?”
The Pharmanex BioPhotonic Scanner is a sleek blue plastic box the size of a fourslice toaster that uses a “low-energy blue light laser” to quantify the antioxidant level of the skin of the human palm. Antioxidants are reckoned to be a good thing: they gobble up the “free radicals” that roam the bloodstream, stealing electrons, aging the skin, attacking the brain, and searching for someplace to build a tumour to kill us.
On the Pharmanex Bioscan scale, a score of less than 20,000 is low, 30,000 to 39,000 is middling, 40,000 to 49,000 is excellent, and 50,000 is reserved for people who eat Brussels sprouts 21 meals a week.
I watch a number of people pay five dollars each to try the device. Nearly all of them score “low,” at which point Adachi attempts to interest them in the Pharmanex LifePak, a handful of pills that is purported to deliver more vitamin D than 59 slices of cheddar cheese, more selenium than 27 cups of green peas, more magnesium than 21 slices of white bread and more alpha lipoic acid than 210 lb. of spinach.
3. Cupboards will never be bare because shopping will be automatic. Every item from organic oranges to your suntan pills will carry a radio frequency ID tag. Your fridge and cupboards will know when you’re short on shortening or how old the carrots are and will automatically order more (to be delivered by the LoblawBot, of course).
4. Smart appliances will never burn your dinner, and in the far future, you’ll just pop the
dishes back in the cupboards where disposo-bots will clean them.
5. Walls will be covered with cheap and flexible liquid-crystals that change colour or pattern on command or turn a wall into a 150-inch home theatre.
6. Lights, appliances and devices in every room will be voice-activated and connected wirelessly. You’ll open your front door with a word, tell the
computer to order a pizza and turn on the wallpaper. Eventually, you’ll just need to thinktUese commands and they will be done.
7. Self-cleaning countertops will be coated with a slippery compound that prevents bacteria from sticking to the surface and destroys any organic molecules it finds. Counters will also display text, such as recipes or the news crawl, either through an integrated screen or beamed from a projector onto the surface.
When it’s my turn, I register 43,000 and go out for fried chicken and beer.
“WHAT ARE people really interested in having?” asks Brian McFadden, chief research officer at Nortel in Ottawa.
“Sex?” I offer in reply. “Friendships? Fulfilling careers? Fun?”
“We see fundamental trends,” McFadden says, focusing on his company’s core interest. “There are going to be tremen-
dous changes in the way people use telecom in their lives.”
He’s talking about things like making movies on your cellphone, and sending them instantly to your cousin in Kowloon.
“It took 100 years to get the world wired for telephones,” he says. “It took us less than 20 years to get wireless capability to billions of people around the world. The next step is ubiquitous wireless connectivity in every device you can imagine, from your automobile to your refrigerator.”
So Jeanine Recckio isn’t kidding about the bedsheets talking to the fridge!
“We will know where things are at all times,” predicts McFadden. “The idea of losing something will be foreign to us. Everything around us will be aware. Devices embedded in roadways will tell us whether the road is safe, whether it’s congested, which route to take.
“Our houses will be smart houses. The house will say, T know they all leave at 8 o’clock in the morning, so I’m going to lower the thermostat as soon as they’re gone. This evening, as soon as anyone comes near the door, I’ll turn up the heat. That will save them $10 a day.’ ”
McFadden tells me about debit cards embedded in cellphones and says that all the kids in South Korea have them. I’m suddenly reminded of the nanotechnologist Ted Sargent, and his belief that “science has got to solve important problems at a human level. It has to fulfill people’s current unmet needs.”
‘We will know where things are at all times. The idea of losing something will be foreign to us.’
-BRIAN MCFADDEN, chief research officer at Nortel
“How do people feel about being surrounded by all this technology?” I wonder.
“Twenty per cent really like it,” McFadden says. “And 80 per cent don’t understand how it works.”
The Nortel CRO predicts a future in which understanding becomes secondary to utilization. He sees “a relentless march in a certain direction. It’ll just keep going and going until that 20-80 split disappears.
“Your newborn won’t have to learn how the Internet works. She won’t have to log on with a password. It will be inherent in the world she lives in. The access to knowledge, to information, will be available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Your value to society will not be determined by your manual labour. It will be determined by what you do with information.”
Will this be Elizabeth’s world in 2025—an unending barrage of bits and bytes? Will there be a way to turn the devices off and steal that cheesecake from the sleeping fridge?
“This is not going to be a technical question,” McFadden believes. “This is going to be a social question. I’m an optimist about the use of technology to improve the quality of life for people. In India, it is already changing the lives of farmers—they can use the Internet to check the prices of their crops at the market and wait until the price is high to bring their crops to sell. They can email photos of their crops to the university for analysis. I think the upside is much greater than the downside.
“There’s not going to be an absolute off switch. These technologies are going to happen, even if people try to shut themselves out. Will you be able to say, T don’t want to talk to my mother today?’ Yes. But will you be able to say, T don’t want any-
one to know where my car is today?’ No.
“I do turn off my own devices. I turn off the radio in my car, but the GPS still knows where my car is. I have read that if you spend 24 hours in London, you are seen by an average of 260 cameras. Can you turn that off? Probably not. I think gradually we’re getting into a world where they can find you, even if you don’t want to be found.”
“WHAT DOES the world look like when everyone’s house is intelligent?” asks the man who wants to educate yours. Jonathan Cluts is the group manager of the Consumer Prototyping Team at the Microsoft Home, a suite of “concept rooms” on the corporate campus in the state of Washington.
Like Jeanine Recckio, Cluts invokes a vision of “the ability of anything in your home to talk to anything else.” But he takes it further: “How do you use that development of organization to assemble things that a human can relate to?”
A centrepiece of Microsoft’s current edition of the Home of the Future is a family entertainment room that changes lighting,
music and mood with a simple voice command. “Let’s say you want to read the famous children’s book Goodnight Moon to your grandchild,” Cluts says. “You say to the room, ‘Enhance my story,’ and the walls change colour to match every page you turn, there are sound effects for each scene, James Earl Jones reads the story, and you really see the cow jump over the moon.”
At the Microsoft Home—as you might expect—an alliance of Internet-enabled computers manages everything from the digital-fingerprint entry pad to the online kitchen bulletin board that announces the daily specials at the local pizza parlour and informs Elizabeth who else is coming to tomorrow night’s party, and what every guest is planning to wear.
In 2025, there is RFID—Radio Frequency Identification, something Wal-Mart started investigating in the 1980s to keep track of its billion-box inventory—printed on or implanted in almost everything. The refrigerator knows what is inside it and warns Elizabeth when she is running out of milk. The microwave reads the bar code on a box of frozen Brussels sprouts and cooks them without human assistance.
The medicine cabinet knows that 75-yearold Allen has forgotten to take his memory pill. The kettle in a solitary senior’s flat dials 911 if great-great-great-grandma doesn’t make a cup of tea all day.
By then, says Cluts, there may even be a Physical Object Printer in Elizabeth’s apartment that sprays coat upon coat of liquid polymers until they build up into a solid object. If the robo-dog eats the remote control to the 3-D HDTV, she simply will download the specs from the Internet and fabricate a new one out of silicon, plastic and paint.
The medicine cabinet knows that 75-year-old Allen has forgotten to take his memory pill’
IN WHAT YEAR will our kids decide that enough technology is enough?
“I’ve been thinking a lot about that,” says Jonathan Cluts. “Today, in your home, there is a trend toward a really rich media experience. In the future, is there going to be a non-technology room in your home? I think there will be. I see it as a meditation room, a place where you can create your own private ‘off zone.’ Looking into the future, in many cases, you won’t have control of the off button.
This would be the one room in the house where you did.”
A place where a real grandfather could read Goodnight Moon from a real book.
“It’s a question of what people evolve into,” Cluts says.
“Societies generally have been pretty good at counterbalancing the effects of these things. Remember when email came in and it was this great useful tool? Then spam came and it became this horrible thing you had to wade through? And then we found ways to deal with the spam and email became more useful than ever?
“If we grew up in the 1900s, riding a horse or driving a buggy was crucial to our movement. Today, it’s not a requirement, but some people still do it. Even when we have the technology to replace it, I believe that something as intimate and important to the human experience as oral storytelling will never end.”
He tells me of another experiment, the embedding of sounds and images
within an object, to be revealed with the wave of a wand or the kiss of a beam of light. In this way, Elizabeth could pick up my father’s priceless old gold Hamilton watch, and he could tell her how he got drafted into the army the day after he bought it, and how he traded it to me for a $5 Timex when I was 12 and called it an even exchange.
If technology could bring my father back to life—even in this small way—I gladly would put up with all the rest. But my daughter will have to make her own accommodation with the wonders of 2025.
“Do I think the core elements of the human experience change?” Cluts asks. “We still eat food with our mouths, we still sleep, we still crave companionship with other human beings.
“Not long ago, I was in Italy and I saw Pompeii. Look at the sophistication of that civilization, with its amphitheatre and its public market. Yeah, we put a plug in the wall and the lights come on, but they had candles to light up their nights. After all this time, are we really that different?” fifl