Digital Fables and Foibles17

Bits and Mortar

Educated as an architect, I have found that many valuable concepts of architecture feed directly into computer design, but so far very little in the reverse, aside from populating our environment with smarter devices, in or behind the scenes. Thinking of buildings as enormous electromechanical devices has so far yielded few inspired applications. Even the Starship Enterprise's architectural behavior is limited to sliding doors.

Buildings of the future will be like the backplanes of computers: "smart ready" (a term coined by the AMP Corporation for their Smart House program). Smart ready is a combination of prewiring and ubiquitous connectors for (future) signal sharing among appliances. You can later add processing of one kind or another, for example, to make the acoustic ambience of four walls in your living room sound like Carnegie Hall.

Most examples of "intelligent environments" I have seen are missing the ability to sense human presence. It is the problem of personal computers scaled up: the environment cannot see or sense you. Even the thermostat is reporting the temperature of the wall, not whether you feel hot or cold. Future rooms will know that you just sat down to eat, that you have gone to sleep, just stepped into the shower, took the dog for a walk. A phone would never ring. If you are not there, it won't ring because you are not there. If you are there and your digital butler decides to connect you, the nearest doorknob may say, "Excuse me, madam," and make the connection.

Some people call this ubiquitous computing, which it is, and some of the same people present it as the opposite of using interface agents, which it is not. These two concepts are one and the same.

The ubiquity of each person's computer presence will be driven by the various and disconnected computer processes in their current lives (airline reservation systems, point-of-sales data, on-line service utilization, metering, messaging). These will be increasingly interconnected. If your early-morning flight to Dallas is delayed, your alarm clock can ring a bit later and the car service automatically notified in accordance with traffic predictions.

Currently absent from most renditions of the home of the future are household robots: a curious turn, because twenty years ago almost any image of the future included a robotic theme. C3PO would make an excellent butler; even the accent is appropriate.

Interest in household robots will swing back, and we can anticipate digital domestics with legs to climb stairs, arms to dust, and hands to carry drinks. For security reasons, a household robot must also be able to bark like a ferocious dog. These concepts are not new. The technology is nearly available. There are probably a hundred thousand people worldwide who would be willing to pay $100,000 for such a robot. That $10 billion market will not go overlooked for long.

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