How smart should a smart home be before it’s worthy of the name? To date, perhaps the term has been too readily applied to homes that are merely high-tech. Automated systems, remote control of appliances from mobile devices, TV and phone over IP—these are all welcome breakthroughs. These technologies are almost synonymous with the smart home and so-called intelligent buildings in general, but there’s little or no intelligence to them. For a home to be considered smart, it must in a sense become a robot—a machine capable of, if not true intelligence (and certainly not sentience), sensing data, processing it, drawing conclusions of its own accord, and then acting upon those conclusions.
It’s a distinction which Diane Cook of Washington State University’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science is acutely aware of. Her research into smart homes goes well beyond presence-detecting light switches, IPTV, and automated garage doors. Cook is interested in homes that to all intents observe their residents and make decisions on their behalf for their own wellbeing. In some cases these decisions are simply for the purposes of convenience: one job less for the homeowner or their family. In other cases these may be decisions that, for a variety of possible reasons, the resident is incapable of making on their own. It’s research that raises not only possibilities, but ethical questions and difficulties. Ars spoke to Cook about her work, and about the field of research more generally, to find out what sort of decisions our homes may be making for us in the not-too-distant future.