My head is my only house unless it rains
THE OUTSIDER - Erwin T. Romulo () - August 29, 2010 - 12:00am

“Maybe I don’t have enough to do. Maybe I have time to think too much. Why don’t we shut the whole house off for a few days and take a vacation?”

“You mean you want to fry my eggs for me?”

“Yes.” she nodded.

“And darn my socks?”

“Yes.” A frantic watery-eyed nodding.

“And sweep the house?”

“Yes, yes — oh yes!” — The Illustrated Man (1952) by Ray Bradbury

“It’s always interesting to watch a psychotropic house try to adjust itself to strangers, particularly those at all guarded or suspicious. The responses vary, a blend of past reactions to negative emotions, the hostility of the previous tenants...” — The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista (1962) by J.G. Ballard

 What would it mean when an electronic device knows more about your partner’s state than you do? Or can predict an incoming bout of misery through statistical analysis of accumulated data? When can technology become too invasive?” So write designer/artists James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau on the concept of the smart home, i.e. environments that can react to their inhabitants, whether to satisfy their needs or to counter any danger posed by any threat to the safety of its owners. They cite research into areas that study the possibility of a “real-time dynamic passive profiling technique… based on the modeling of facial expressions, eye movement and pupil changes in both the visual and thermal domains and link these to malicious intent and physiological processes (such as blood flow, eye movement patterns, and pupil dilation).” To do this, the project would collect, analyze and develop a “dataset used to model the baseline of facial imagery behavior of the general population against which physiological behaviors in people with malicious intent would need to be detected… The developed techniques would be evaluated in operational trials at border control points (and) the developed techniques will have a wider remit into other domains.”

They point out that the idea itself is not new and has been explored by science-fiction authors in the past. In particular they cite Ray Bradbury’s short story collection, The Illustrated Man (1952), and J.G. Ballard’s tale “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista” (1962) as examples. In the latter’s story, he refers to such devices as “psychotropic,” which is an adjective that denotes something as “affecting mental activity, behavior, or perception, as a mood-altering drug.” On their website, they use the two passages quoted at the beginning, stating the author’s stories provided inspiration.

Both Auger and Loizeau posit that, although not yet achieved in the manner that sci-fi has extrapolated, the technology is already “realized on a slightly mundane level by several telecoms and IT companies.” They point out “there is something about the concept of a reactive home and intelligent products that captures the public imagination.”

Of course, the pervasiveness of consumer culture has already made sure that we’re dependent on machines to help run our homes, if not our lives. Not that this is unwelcome, as we cannot doubt that technology and the various gadgets it has given us have yielded great benefits. The way we store and cook our food, the way we maintain our homes or keep schedules — not to mention how we amuse and entertain ourselves — is made easier by these innovations. For one, it’s made the kitchen a less bloody place to work in.

But intelligent machines? The kind that are sentient enough to cater to our every whim or to deal with those tasks that take time away from talking to our spouses, listening to our children or, perhaps, from playing Farmville? There are those who certainly find the idea enticing while others would balk at the idea and deem it too invasive. Sure, it would be great to be able to do more of the more important things in life, but the naysayers will be quick to point out that, once achieved, will we stop there? Won’t we go as far as getting machines to also attend to both the needs of our spouses and children — perversely, to allow us more free time to play Farmville?

Another thing worth considering is that homes already impact and affect us by themselves. Even if you disregard the supernatural, every house admittedly does have its own character that affects us whenever we enter. This could be due to past or current inhabitants or even our own psychological biases that may be triggered by an oft-aligned pillar or worn piece of furniture in our midst. If a machine takes on the latent aspect of a building and has the sentience to react to random elements introduced to its environment, then things might get more complicated than just tying your housedog on a leash. Like in that space-age retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the 1950s sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, in which Dr. Morbius’s Id produces a Caliban monster that tries to kill the spacemen who’ve landed and their planet — in particular the one who desires his daughter. (One wonders how the “smart home” owned by the character played by Vic Silayan in Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata, Mang Dadong, might’ve done much earlier.)

“In the context of national security, criminal activity and human safety, technology is usually seen as a means to an end,” write Auger and Loizeau. “However dark or invasive the application, its presence is accepted because the worst-case scenario would be infinitely worse.” But it remains to be seen what exactly would be infinitely worse — there are uncertainties either way.

Dr. I.J. Good, who’s made a special study on A.I. and its possible effects, writes that, “if we build an ultra-intelligent machine, we will be playing with fire. We have played with fire before, and it has helped keep the other animals at bay.” To which author Arthur C. Clarke, co-inventor of the murderous computer HAL in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, added: “We shall be the other animals; and look at what has happened to them.”

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