Washington State University

Forget to turn off the oven, or close the garage, or feed the cat? Your house knows.

Just about everything has the word “smart” appended to it these days: smart grids, smart phones, smart washing machines. But when Diane Cook talks about the “smart homes” she has been researching at Washington State University, she is not simply referring to homes that are wired or connected, homes that run with more energy efficiency or homes that produce their own data.

She’s talking about homes – filled with small sensors, each connected to a central computer program – that actually have the ability to reason what’s going on inside them. Let’s say you get out of bed every morning at 7:45. A smart home will eventually learn this about you and start prepping the coffee pot at 7:30. Leave the oven on longer than seems plausible for a pot roast? A smart home can point this out to you. In learning about the remarkably consistent routines most of us move through on a daily basis, a smart home might even detect the first signs of dementia.

“That's what differentiates the high-tech home or connected home from a smart home,” says Cook, who recently wrote about the promise of these places in the journal Science.

The whole idea here isn’t to enable laziness. Of course, you are perfectly capable of programming your own coffee pot, and you probably don’t need your bungalow to do this for you. But Cook has been focusing on two potential applications for this kind of in-home “ambient intelligence” that could dramatically benefit society. Smart homes could help control energy usage. But they could also enable an aging population to live in their own homes longer.

Cook’s students can equip a home with this technology in about two hours, for around $3,000, most of which covers the cost of wireless sensors. (Decide you don’t want these gizmos any more? They can also take it all down in 30 minutes). Cook wants this system to be something that you might actually be able to buy and install yourself, for, say, your grandmother.

“Physically, we hope it doesn’t look different than any other home,” she says. “We bring people into our test site, and they always say ‘what we will we see?’ They’re hoping to maybe see a lot of robots walking around. But we want this to disappear into the environment so it doesn’t make any changes into your lifestyle, and would be more accepting for people to use.”

After all, the population most likely to benefit from all this also happens to contain the people least likely to be early adopters of cutting-edge technology. Think about your grandmother. She doesn’t even like when the toaster’s been moved, let alone when someone drops off a newfangled machine-learning-capable computer. And so the sensors in these smart homes look about like smoke detectors. There might be one in each room, or more in intricate spaces like your kitchen.

The sensors themselves aren’t that sophisticated, but the computer program they’re attached to can be. It can fill in the gaps as the sensors detect you moving through the home with what it knows about you, where you might be heading and whether you left all the lights on. In short, the longer you live in a smart home, the smarter it gets. (And if you want the benefits of this in your old age – assuming most Atlantic Cities readers aren’t yet suffering from dementia – you might consider installing such a system soon so that it’s waiting for you when you need it.)

As with most promising new technology, this concept comes with privacy concerns. You probably don’t want burglars to know as much about you as your smart home does. But Cook says those concerns are largely mitigated if the data is kept within the home and not, say, in the cloud.

All of this could change the way we look at our homes, and the relationship that we have to them. In the future, they won’t be static structures any more, primarily responsible for keeping out the rain and keeping in the air conditioning. These homes are almost like caregivers.

“I do anticipate that people would expect more out of their homes in terms of not just having a roof over their head,” Cook says. “On the other hand, I’m not sure the technology needs to be limited to the four walls that we live in.

She envisions this ambient intelligence following you throughout your day. Maybe your home communicates with your phone, which then communicates with your office when you get there. You need to be reminded to take pills there, too.

“I wouldn’t want the benefits of this smart technology to be disappearing,” Cook says, “as soon as I leave home.”

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