Future ‘Smart Homes’ Will Watch and Remember Your Needs

Technology lets people
control the heat and lights
of their home by programming a
computer, but an engineer at Washington State University thinks
the house should be able to handle those tasks, and much more, by
itself someday. A “smart home” could not only set its own
thermostat but learn its inhabitants’ habits and preferences, and
even catch the early signs of cognitive decline in older
residents, according to the engineer’s essay appearing today
(March 29)  in the journal Science.

Diane Cook, who runs 25 test smart homes throughout the Pacific
Northwest, summarized in her paper what future high-tech houses
could do and what researchers still have to figure out before
everybody can live in one. 

Cook’s essay “hits it right on,” said Sumi Helal, a computer
scientist who researches smart homes at the University of
Florida. Higher-tech homes in the future will need to learn over
time, Helal said.

Cook, Helal (who knows Cook but was not involved with her essay)
and other researchers are looking to give houses the ability to
monitor and reason about what to do with the heat, air
conditioning, lights, sprinklers and more, all without human
input. Then people wouldn’t have to deal with trying to program
ever-more-complex thermostats or lighting systems.  

“What we’re interested in is giving computer software the ability
to make some decisions about how to control your home,” Cook
said. 

However, she is not interested in home conveniences simply for
convenience’s sake. Cook told InnovationNewsDaily that smart
homes would be especially useful for older people or those with
disabilities. Smart home systems could preserve an independent
lifestyle for people who, because of age or illness, can’t
control or remember all the functions in their house. The home
could remind them to take medications, or it could feed the cat
for them and check the lights and windows after they’ve gone to
bed. 

Smart home systems also could monitor inhabitants’ well-being.
Cook’s essay cites a  2010
finding
 that people older than 65 change their walking
speed just before experiencing cognitive decline. A smart home
could monitor elderly residents’ gait and other movements to
catch such subtle signs of ill health.

Several of Cook’s test smart homes are in assisted-living
apartments. 

Helal says he, too, is motivated by the desire to help aging
parents stay in the homes they love. Most people think of their
own parents when they study this topic, he said. His mother is 79
years old and lives alone in Alexandria, Egypt. “I worry about
her a lot,” he said. He has found his research has many
supporters, as people immediately think of relatives such smart
homes would help. The close monitoring of a person by a smart
home might seem unsettling, however. “Privacy concerns are and
always will be an issue,” Cook said. 

She suggested that the next generation of homeowners may think
differently about smart-home monitoring. If younger people, who
are already accustomed to owning devices that track their data,
 got smart home technology for its other benefits, such as
energy savings or a better security system, they might not mind
having the system watch their health as they get older. 

“Ideally we’d get this into people’s homes now, so by the time
they really need it for health purposes, it’s already familiar to
them,” Cook said. 

As it is, she said, the people who try her test homes usually
feel better when they see the type of data the house collects and
how most data are anonymized. 

Cook’s essay covers privacy issues well, Helal said. He would add
that engineers will need to be careful to build safety features
into smart technologies. They’ll need to prevent heating or water
from going awry, or the front door from opening in the middle of
the night, letting in burglars or raccoons and skunks.

Cook and Helal said the chief remaining technological challenge
before everyone lives in smart homes is that, for a computer,
getting to know you is hard. In test houses, Cook found it’s
possible for a house to learn what is wanted by a single
inhabitant with a regular routine. A large family with an
irregular schedule, however, is more difficult for the system.

Detecting people in a house is “quite simple,” but a smart system
needs to make sense of what it detects without input from the
people, Cook said. Just as Google and grocery stores track
people’s search terms and club card purchases to send them
certain ads, a smart home will have to mine the data it gathers
to figure out what to do. 

Cook said researchers are working on getting a house’s system to
recognize sequences of events: “They’re cooking right now,
they’re sleeping right now, or they’re going to come home in 10
minutes so have the Jacuzzi ready right now.” 

Though researchers are still a long way from a house that can
take raw data about its inhabitants and recognize activities or
behaviors, the first smart homes may be here sooner than you
think. “We’ll have tens of millions of smart homes within three
years because of the smart grid,” Helal said. The next-generation
power grid, which the U.S. National Institute of Standards and
Technology is working to develop, would put “smart boxes” in
people’s homes that will sense the electricity usage in all of
their outlets and reduce wasted power. 

Though the goal of the smart technology in this case is energy
savings, and not health or convenience monitoring, the idea is
the same, Helal said. He thinks private companies will develop
technologies to go along with the smart box. That tech may
include health monitoring or other scrutiny and decision-making.
“That is the beginning of it,” Helal said.

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