The ”smart help meets” are on their way: our homes, our offices, our cars and our clothes. They are meant to be aware, not dumb; proactive, not inert. They are meant to be understanding. If that sounds Frankenstein — well, get over it.

”Desks and doors, televisions and telephones, cars and trains, eyeglasses and shoes and even the shirts on our backs — all are changing from static, inanimate objects into adaptive, reactive systems,” wrote Alex Pentland, a pioneer in smart environments at the M.I.T. Media Lab, in a turn-of-the-century manifesto titled, appropriately enough, ”It’s Alive!” To make them work, we will have ubiquitous sensors — microphones and cameras embedded in walls — and computers learning to interpret speech, gestures and facial expressions.

Not that the transition will be easy. ”You can quickly realize how difficult it is for computers to become intelligent and helpful,” Pentland writes. ”They exist in a world that is almost completely disconnected from ours, so how can they understand our desires?” How, indeed? Poor devils.
Back in the real world, we humans have problems of our own. The Smart House is already big business, far from the computer-science laboratories — a growth industry not waiting for the emergence of advanced artificial intelligence. Home remodelers nationwide have become systems integrators. Here in 2003, the core home technologies are still light switches and coffeepots and DVD players and burglar alarms. Make connections with wires and radio waves, allow a bit of programming and funny things can happen.

If the applications don’t yet rise to the level foreseen in the labs, there is scope for ingenuity in every room. A California company, Arkon Resources, is marketing a patented His ‘n’ Her Toilet Night Light: when anyone enters the bathroom in the dark, a motion detector activates a color-coded light to indicate the status of the seat. Red means up and green means down.

Once you’ve entered the future, be prepared for a double-edged question: Is your house smarter than you are? You’re likely to hear it from your spouse, who just wants to watch TV, while you struggle with the combined TiVo-DVD-satellite remote control. Houseguests may join in, when you hand them printed instructions for the coffeepot. Before long you’ll hear the question in your dreams.

Intelligence cuts two ways. We might want our homes to take care of us, but we don’t want our virtual help meets to make us feel inadequate. We certainly don’t want them to have opinions of their own. Yet the Smart House, even in its first, crude incarnation, often seems to have a personality — a will of its own.

It falls to the homeowner to serve as local information-technology manager. After all, with power comes responsibility. Someone must take charge of operating these new and complex devices, not to mention the programming and systems design. The homeowner spends increasing time alone in an important new room, a room off-limits to some members of the household: the wiring closet. User manuals proliferate. Sometimes it is even necessary to read them — necessary, but not sufficient.

”Help,” pleads a new member of an online home-automation forum. Her ceiling lights and sconces have been ”turning on at random times during the night.” She can still turn them on herself (although only using the remote). ”However, they also apparently are capable of turning themselves on.” Can we blame her for worrying?

In a large Smart House, the old idea of light switches — simple toggles — begins to seem quaint and impractical. People just have too many lights, and they want to exert control from wherever they are. So a typical system uses radio remote control, with dimmers, repeaters and auxiliary repeaters. With Lutron’s RadioRA system, you don’t just turn on lights; you activate ”scenes.” You can use wall masters or table-top masters, but either way, you should remember what it means when the L.E.D.’s ”flutter” or ”flash.” Don’t be surprised when a well-meaning dinner guest plunges the house into darkness.

Another real-life scene: past midnight, the home alarm system begins to shriek. The I.T. manager pulls himself out of bed and examines the L.C.D. touch-pad display, which is reporting a fault in the basement heat sensor. I.T. man resets the system and returns to bed. Five minutes later — and thereafter at irregular intervals ranging from a few seconds to a few hours — the alarm system rediscovers the faulty sensor and shrieks again. I.T. man finds the instruction manual and tries extreme measures, including ripping the panel from the wall, but this is a highly secure and advanced alarm system, and tonight, silence is not an option.

Not until late the next day is the problem solved. An expert technician replaces the faulty sensor, consulting with the manufacturer via cellphone. He explains that a fire alarm is a life-critical system, not permitted to be disabled merely for the comfort of weary residents. By then, I.T. man’s spouse has decamped, saying over her shoulder, ”Your house is smarter than you are.”

Advanced ventilation systems — with timers, zones, sensors indoors and out and programmatic control — have been known to get confused and blast heat and air-conditioning at the same time. In many homes, it is not even possible to plug in the VCR and the DVD player at the same time — not without some rewiring, at least. There is nostalgia for the days when the worst system-administrative problem was programming the VCR.

In those days, when the house needed minor repairs, you would get out a screwdriver and a Reader’s Digest Do-It-Yourself manual and do it yourself. When the Smart House needs repair, you have to call in the experts. It is not unheard of for homeowners to telephone tech support for help turning off the garden sprinklers.

Why do we bother? Mainly, because we can.

Much of the world of home automation descends from one great progenitor: the television remote control. This innocent gadget arrived 50 years ago, offering people in bedrooms and living rooms the power to ”zap” their favorite appliance on and off. It was the magic wand made real. ”Prest-o! Change-o!” said a typical advertisement. ”Amazing!” Little did they know.

Remote controls are habit-forming. We create action at a distance, and we want more: garage doors, car doors, the bedroom blinds and every last component of the home theater system. But how many individual remote controls can one person want? Generally, the answer is one. So we need one more smart helpmeet: the programmable remote, a computer in itself, with hard and ”soft” buttons and scroll wheels and touchscreens and trackballs. And very large manuals.

If the spread of automation in our homes is driven by the desire for control, in another sense it is driven by a technical fact: the sheer fungibility of bits. Phone calls, family photos, music, correspondence — these used to belong to different domains. Now they’re all bits, all members of one family and all ready to travel across the same circuits. So you wire your walls with Cat-5 cable, flood your local electromagnetic spectrum with Wi-Fi and RadioRA and IR Blasters and, naturally, you want to make use of all this bandwidth.

Suddenly, the fastest-selling digital cameras are the ones attached to cellphones. Transmitting the photos across that network, you naturally start to wonder, why not also show them at home on any available TV screen? Why not play music in every room? Why not browse the Web on the Internet fridge?

Our technolust and Luddite impulses have rarely been so provoked — and at the same time and in the same people. Workplaces and cars have plenty of resonance, but the home is special: hearth, womb — place of succor, not bewilderment. So Smart Houses cause both stress and exhilaration, and the emotions are hard to separate. ”For those of us who don’t want to have any part in restructuring our lives, it’s daunting,” says a New York psychotherapist whose home I.T. manager is his wife.

”I’m not allowed near any of the electrical fixtures,” he says. ”She’s got most of the lights in the house on a timer. Lights go on at various times — I guess, in sync with darkness. I mean, when the world gets dark, a light materializes. Most of the time the system works out, but there are times when it doesn’t, and I want to do the most natural thing, which is to turn on a light manually. It turns out that this is not the right thing to do, because I screw up the programming.”

He has learned to accept his role. He senses that the world is in a transitional period. ”Some wonderful things are happening. But until the dust settles, I’m sitting on the sidelines and letting lights turn themselves on and off.”

By James Gleick