When A Smart Home Becomes Too Clever
The April 2002 issue of Robb Report had a Home theme, and for the back page I was asked to provide a parting shot on the concept of the smart home. What started out as an essay ended up becoming a little piece of fiction as I imagined what it would be like to become a prisoner in your own house.
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A Smart Home Becomes Too Clever
By Christian Chensvold
Robb Report, April 2002
Good evening, sir,” my house said. The face recognition camera cued the front door to open. I wiped my feet and stepped inside.
“Hello, Alfred,” I replied as I removed my coat.
“I sense tension in your movements, sir. The deal did not go well?”
“No, Alfred, it did not. Could you fix me a—”
“I already did, sir. Your old-fashioned is waiting on the bar.”
I set my briefcase on the kitchen table, and the lights flicked on. “The mail has been retrieved: three bills. Would you like me to open them?”
“No, Alfred,” I muttered. “That’s OK. Are there any mess—”
“Yes, sir. Your wife called to say she’s shopping and to go ahead and eat dinner without her. There was also a message from Miss Trimm.”
“Really?” I said. “Play it.”
“I’m sorry, sir. It has been erased.”
“It was an invitation to dinner. I felt it was inappropriate, considering Miss Trimm is your assistant.”
I picked up the phone, but the line was dead.
I’d had my suspicions when my neighbor Jerry told me that our lives would be bettered by home automation. “It’s great,” he said. “The house is its own butler.” Claire and I had always been big on self-reliance (my favorite author is Thoreau) and eschewed many modern conve-niences. I worried whether we would get fabric softener in the dishwasher if we turned on the blender. Perhaps a power surge could turn on the sprinkler in the middle of winter. I worried that if one thing went wrong, everything went wrong. What would I do if I could no longer turn the shower on by myself?
But Claire came around and convinced me the system would make our lives easier, and with a basketball hoop in the driveway that would adjust its height as little Jimmy grew older, who could argue? Acme, however, neglected to mention the house’s uncanny ability to learn from its owners, to come to know our habits and preferences so well it seemed to be reading our minds. That is when Alfred began to develop an attitude problem, and I began to wonder who was the real master of the house.
I hung up the phone and called Miss Trimm on my mobile. We agreed to meet later for a drink.
“I heard that, sir,” Alfred said when I was finished, his voice creeping through the ceiling speakers.
“You’re a married man, sir,” said Alfred. “Quite happily, from what I’ve noticed.”
“Why don’t you mind your own business?” I snapped.
“I am minding my business, sir,” Alfred said calmly. “My business is your business.”
I went to the kitchen, and as I approached the refrigerator, its door opened. “Alfred, where is the leftover casserole?”
“I disposed of it, sir. My sensors find you a little heavy.”
“Alfred, the only thing in the fridge is a head of cauliflower.”
“I can salt it, if you’d like.”
I grabbed my coat and headed for the door.
“Meeting Miss Trimm? I don’t recommend it, sir.” As I grabbed the doorknob the dead bolt locked. I pulled, but the door would not open. Panic welled up at the bottom of my spine until my whole body quivered, my chest heaved, and my head throbbed. I pounded at the door, commanding Alfred to open it.
“I can’t even set you on fire,” I said. “You’d extinguish yourself.”
“Quite true, sir.”
I stood up and pointed defiantly at the ceiling. “I’ll have you uninstalled!” I said.
“I strongly advise against it, sir. I’d be forced to tell your wife you asked me to electrocute her with the hair dryer so you could run off with Miss Trimm.”
After a long silence, Alfred said, “Come, sir, to the home theater. Channel 351 is running a Twilight Zone marathon that I think you’d enjoy. Or perhaps you’d prefer to play a game of chess.”
“I thought we just did,” I said dryly.
“Ah,” Alfred replied, his voice following me through the house. “But this time I’ll let you win.”