March 30, 2012 at 3:03 PM ET
Our homes and cities may soon be filled with sensors and tiny, energy-sipping computers that watch our every move in order, we hope, to enrich our lives and lower our impact on the environment, according to researchers working in the field of “ambient intelligence.”
While there’s a creepy Big Brother element to our houses and cities watching, learning, and interacting with our every move, the smart homes and cities of the future are really just the next frontier in our already sensor-rich and hyper-connected world.
Such technology will eliminate the programming steps needed, for example, to make our thermostats adjust depending on time of day or lighting systems that turn off lamps when nobody is in the room. The intelligent devices will just do it seamlessly by learning our patterns and preferences.
The heart of the technology is the ability to computers “reason through” all of the data collected by our gadgets so that we can “use them in an intelligent way,” Diane Cook, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Washington State University, told me today.
Smart thermostats and home lighting systems are obvious applications that already exist in half-baked forms such as the Nest learning thermostat and various emerging smart grid technologies. Future iterations of ambient intelligence could also have a big impact on elder care, Cook notes.
“For segments of the population, this technology would allow them to stay at home for a couple of years longer than they could otherwise by providing continuous updated information to loved ones and caregivers about the wellbeing of their loved ones,” she said.
For example, the smart home can turn off a stove that a parent with early-stage dementia forgot about – and send a text message to a child or caregiver that the mental lapse occurred. It could also sound alerts to remind aging parents to take medications or call 911 if they fall down in the shower.
“If there hasn’t been the normal amount of motion in the house today, that would be another good reason to contact a family member,” Cook noted.
This use of the technology could save states about $9.4 million a day in health care costs, she notes in the video below where she describes some of her research. Cook goes into more detail on the work in an article published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.
One challenge, she told me, is to get older people to embrace ambient intelligent technology. In ongoing trials at an apartment complex is Seattle, for example, adults with cognitive health issues tend to resist any type of change in their environment.
“It is the caregivers, the children, and the spouses who say, ‘Please, bring it on, we need some help,’” she said. “And so the individuals who need it most might be reluctant but for those for whom we are providing the service because it is them who do it otherwise, they are highly embracing it.”
That’s partly because generations X, Y and digital natives are already accustomed to security cameras watching our every move and technology that keeps in constant contact with our friends and colleagues. We expect and want our technology to get even smarter.
Older folks, Cook noted, are more concerned about their privacy and the security of their data. One technique that seems to help them embrace ambient intelligence, she said, is to show them how the technology works.
“Humans don’t see it, we don’t analyze it, and that allows them to be more comfortable with it,” she said.
It is not just our homes that are getting smarter. Our cities, too, are beginning to embrace the technology, write Michael O’Grady and Gregory O’Hare at University College Dublin, in a related article in Science.
For example, not too far in the future, on a visit to a museum our smartphone may be able to detect what exhibits we visit and suggest other things to check out based on our preferences similar to the way Amazon.com learns our reading habits to suggest books we might enjoy.
Another technology called the Dust-Bot, the Irish researchers note, could soon have robots sweeping the streets without any human interaction. But such a technology, they note, is currently cost-prohibitive. It is still cheaper to pay a flesh-and-bone human minimum wage to do the thankless chore.
Ultimately, getting to the smart, connected city will require standardization of technology so that devices can all talk to each other and energy harvesting techniques that will let these gadgets run all the time without constantly needing new batteries or sucking more and more energy from the grid.
But such a future, the ambient intelligence researchers argue, is not to be feared akin to an Orwellian Big Brother. “Ultimately, ambient intelligence is about people and improving their quality of life,” the Irish researchers write.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.