'Smart' Homes Prevent Illness, Run The Dryer

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Might your house someday become too smart? It's one thing to have a sensor-and-computer-equipped home telling you the best time to run the dryer--when, say, energy costs are low. But do you want it telling doctors that you're suffering from dementia? Do you want it diagnosing autism in your child?

Smarty-pants, tattle-tale homes may be just around the corner, predicts Diane Cook, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Washington State University. Her recent article in Science, "How Smart is Your Home?" envisions a future where sensor-laden domiciles not only save their owners' money (on, say, energy costs) but also keep tabs on their physical and mental well-being.

Today, says Cook, "constructing a smart home is not difficult or expensive. There are test-beds all over the world. The infrastructure is available now."

Sensors already can detect, for example, the motions of home occupants. Changes in those motions can indicate illnesses, including the onset of dementia or autism. Sensors also can record when lights are turned on and off, when utilities are used. In the future, they may even be able to monitor occupants' emotions, by reading facial expressions.

What makes all this possible, says Cook, is "ambient intelligence," an advancement that comes from the embedding of microprocessors in familiar objects, such as home appliances. "It is gradually pervading almost every level of society," she writes.

"In the home, the idea is that computer software, playing the role of an intelligent agent, perceives the state of the physical environment, reasons about this state using artificial intelligence, and then takes actions to achieve specified goals, such as maximizing comfort of the residents and maintaining health and safety," Cook writes.

Present home-management systems must be pre-programmed by home owners: You need to tell your system when to turn your heat on or off. Tomorrow's systems, however, will observe occupant behavior, draw their own intelligent conclusions, and then make autonomous decisions "without explicit human control," Cook writes.

So far, in fact, may autonomous intelligence advance that tomorrow's homes may need to incorporate software that provides for occupants "to retain ultimate authority to resent the system and to impose restraints that prevent the home from taking undesired or harmful actions."

The upside to making homes more intelligent could be substantial, says Cook, especially where seniors are concerned. Outfitting a 2,000 square foot home or apartment with sensors costs only about $2,000. But the cost of institutional care for a senior suffering from dementia can be tens of thousands of dollars a year.

If information gleaned from home sensors could give doctors advance notice of dementia, and if by their intervention the senior could remain at home for even one additional year, then they smart home would have paid for itself.

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