Home Smart Home
' Thinking ' appliances, clever clothes and intelligent cars...they could all be part of your future!

Good morning! The coffee maker has checked the schedule and starts perking at 6:00 a.m. Luckily, the refrigerator noted the expiration date on the milk carton and had more delivered. The mirror over the bathroom sink gives Mom the morning headlines while she brushes her teeth. After getting dressed, Dad enters an appointment on his palmtop controller, which is synchronized with a small computer woven into his sport jacket. Later, when he heads to the appointment, his car's computer will load his destination from the jacket, look it up on the Internet and call out directions as he drives, monitoring road conditions for traffic jams.

Sound odd? Maybe, but not for long, because the next revolution in technology, which some are calling "pervasive computing," isn't for hackers and geeks. It's more likely to show up in Internet dishwashers and Web-surfing family sedans. Indeed, computer specialists everywhere are chanting a common mantra: "Computers in everything. Everything connected to the Net." It's a combination that could change our lives.

The infrastructure is still evolving, but the vision is well drawn. Your home, for instance, will probably have one or more items directly wired to the Internet: a set-top television box, a game console, a server sitting in the basement.

These could be the jumping-off points for a tiny radio-frequency net that broadcasts throughout the house. That way the Internet could be literally in the air. Stuff inside the house could be relevant bits. Your alarm clock might ring later than usual if it logs on to find out that you don't have to get the kids ready for school...snow day! Your dishwasher's Internet connection will be used to contact the manufacturer if something goes wrong. By examining diagnostic chips in the machine, the company might even fix it remotely.

This vision assumes that functions that have been customarily performed by a PC--Web surfing, scheduling, note-taking--will be handled by specialized information appliances that can simplify our lives. The guru of the "humane" computing movement, Don Norman, author of "The Invisible Computer",says that information absorbed by appliances should be able to move between devices with ease. Current appliances have difficulty doing this. But if we adopt a lingua franca that enables devices to freely swap information, then all our electronic books and Internet phones and handheld organizers become much more valuable and easier to use. Though zillions of devices will be grabbing information and zapping stuff to other devices, the technoids insist it will all work smoothly.

There are no guarantees here, but pervasive computing proselytizers offer compelling reasons why their vision is more than a fat pipe dream.

It's simple. Don Norman believes computing is about to undergo a transformation similar to that of electric motors. Originally, motors were sold separately from attachments like mixers, fans and sewing machines, but eventually they became invisible to users.

It's cheap. Right now, all our devices are loaded with their own controls and interfaces, making them expensive. "But if you took, say, a VCR, ripped out those expensive buttons and knobs in the front and put a network interface on the back, you could control it with a Web browser," says David Clark, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Getting devices networked makes them cheaper, and anything that's cheaper is inevitable."

It's reliable. Bill Joy, chief designer of Sun Microsystems' Jini language, which aspires to be the aforementioned lingua franca, compares PC reliability with that of the airplane. It's not unusual when your computer crashed and wipes out your tax records. But plane accidents are intolerable, triggering investigations and often resulting in changes to the system. "That's the standard we should aim for," Joy says.

Most, however, would settle for the level of reliability of stereo sets, where the expectation of things working as they should is almost always satisfied. That's the promise of pervasiveness, where the complexity of the PC is eliminated, computer chips replace less-relaible mechanical processes, and Internet diagnoses will supposedly fix things even before they're broken.

When can this vision be realized? Pundits estimate five to ten years before the new technologies become commonplace and various groups agree on common standards. But pieces of the vision fall into place almost daily.

Frigidaire's Internet Refrigerator, for example, can tell when food supplies get low and order more from the supermarket. Matsushita's smart toilet analyzes samples and ships the data to health care providers. A company called emWare has developed software for a sprinkler system that checks out weather reports so it won't spritz during a downpour. The auto industry is developing microprocessors that determine when, for example, a car's alternator is about to burn out, then post e-mail to find the nearest service station that stocks a replacement.

Whatever the speed and shape of pervasive computing, the hope is that it will keep its main promise: integrating computers and the Internet so seamlessly into devices that we'll forget what's inside them. Instead, we'll concentrate on the tasks we want to perform in the first place.

from Reader's Digest-November 1999

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AND then..."the response"! (as written by Dave Barry of the Miami Herald)

Recently the Washington Post printed an article explaining how the appliance manufacturers plan to drive consumers insane.

Of course, they don't say they want to drive us insame. What they say they want to do is have us live in homes where "all appliances are on the Internet, sharing information" and appliances will be "smarter than most of their owners." For example, the article states, you would have a home where the dishwasher "can be turned on from the office," the refigerator "knows when it's out of milk," and the bathroom scale "transmits your weight to the gym."

I frankly wonder whether the applicance manufacturers, with all due respect, have been smoking crack. I mean, did they ever stop to ask themselves why a consumer, after loading a dishwasher, would go to the office to start it? Would there be some kind of career benefit?

Your boss: "What are you doing?"

You: (tapping computer keyboard): "I'm starting my dishwasher!"

Your boss: "That's the kind of productivity we need around here!"

You: "Now I'm flushing the upstairs toilet!"

Listen, appliance manufacturers: We don't need a dishwasher that we can communicate with from afar. If you want to improve our dishwashers, give us one that senses when people leave dirty dishes on the kitchen counter and shouts, "Put those dishes in the dishwasher right now or I'll leak all over your shoes!"

Likewise, we don't need a refrigerator that knows when it's out of milk. We already have a foolproof system for determining if we're out of milk: we ask our wife. What we could use is a refrigerator that refuses to let us open its door when it senses that we are about to consume our fourth pudding snack in two hours.

As for a scale that transmits our weight to the gym: Are they NUTS? We don't want our weight transmitted to our own EYEBALLS! What if the gym transmitted our weight to all these other appliances on the Internet? What if, God forbid, our refrigerator found out our weight? We'd never get the door open again!

But here is what really concerns me about these new "smart" appliances: Even if we like the features, we won't be able to use them. We can't use the appliance features we have NOW. I have a feature-packed telephone with 43 buttons, at least 20 of which I am afraid to touch. This phone probably can communicate with the dead, but I don't know how to operate it, just as I don't know how to operate my TV, which has features out the wazooty and requires THREE remote controls. One control (44 buttons) came with the TV; a second (39 buttons) came with the VCR; the third (37 buttons) was brought here by the cable-TV man, who apparently felt that I did not have enough buttons.

So when I want to watch TV, I'm confronted with a total of 120 buttons, identified by such helpful labels as PIP, MTS, DBS and JUMP. There are three buttons labeled POWER, but there are times--especially if my son and his friends, who are not afraid of features, have changed the settings--when I cannot figure out how to turn the TV on. I stand there, holding three remote controls, pressing buttons at random, until eventually I give up and go turn on the dishwasher. It has been, literally, years since I have successfully recorded a TV show. That is how "smart" my appliances have become.

And now the appliance manufacturers want to give us MORE features. Do you know what this means? It means that some night you'll open your "smart" refrigerator, looking for a beer, and you'll hear a cheerful recorded voice--the same woman who informs you that Your Call Is Important when you phone a business that does not wish to speak with you personally--telling you, "Your celery is limp." You will not know how your refrigerator knows this, and, what is worse, you will not know who else your refrigerator is telling about it.

But if you want to make the refrigerator stop, you'll have to decipher an owner's manual written by nuclear physicists. ("To disable the Produce Crispness Monitoring feature, enter the Command mode, then select the Edit function, then select Change Vegetable Defaults, then assume that Train A leaves Chicago traveling westbound at 47 m.p.h., while Train B...")

Is this the kind of future you want, consumers? Do you want appliances that are smarter than you? Of course not.

Your appliances should be DUMBER than you, just like your furniture, your pets and your representatives in Congress. So I am urging you to let the appliance industry know that when it comes to "smart" appliances, you vote NO. You need to act quickly. Because while you're reading this, your microwave oven is voting YES.

from Reader's Digest-August 2000

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