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Out of Control

Barcelona, Spain is a city of die-hard optimists. Its citizens embrace not only trade and industry, art and opera, but also the Future, with a capital F. Twice, in 1888 and 1929, Barcelona hosted the Universal Exhibition, the then equivalent of a world's fair. Barcelona eagerly courted this future-friendly fiesta because, in one Spanish writer's opinion, the city "...really has no reason to [it] is constantly re-inventing itself by creating great prospects." Barcelona's 1992 self-made great prospect was an Olympic vision, with a capital O. Young athletes, mass culture, new technology, big bucks -- quite appealing prospects to this square town bustling with commonsense design and an earnest mercantile spirit.

Smack in the middle of this pragmatic place, the legendary Antonio Gaudi built several dozen of the strangest buildings on Earth. His structures are so futuristic and weird that Barcelonians and the world didn't know what to make of them until recently. His most famous creation is the unfinished cathedral known as the Sagrada Familia. Begun in 1884, the parts of the cathedral completed in Gaudi's time seethe with organic energy. The facade of stone drips, arcs, and blossoms as if it were vegetable. Four soaring steeples are honeycombed with cavities, revealing them to be the bony skeleton of support they are. One-third of the way up a second set of towers in the rear, massive thighbone braces lean up from the ground and steady the church. From a distance the braces look to be giant bleached drumsticks of a creature long dead.

All of Gaudi's work squirms with the flow of life. Ventilator chimneys sprouting on the roofs of his Barcelona apartments resemble a collection of mounted life forms from an alien planet. Window eaves and roof gutters curve in organic efficiency rather than follow a mechanical right angle. Gaudi captures that peculiar living response which cuts across a square campus lawn and traces a graceful curving shortcut. His buildings seem to be grown rather than constructed.

Imagine an entire city of Gaudi buildings, a human-made forest of planted homes and organic churches. Imagine if Gaudi did not have to stop with the static face of a stone veneer, but could endow his building with organic behavior over time. His building would thicken its hide on the side where the wind blows most or rearrange its interior as its inhabitants shifted their use of it. Imagine if Gaudi's city not only stood by organic design but adapted and flexed and evolved as living creatures do, forming an ecology of buildings. This is a future vision that not even optimistic Barcelona is ready for. But it is a future that is arriving now with the advent of adaptive technologies, distributed networks, and synthetic evolution.

You can browse through old Popular Science magazines from the early '60s and see that a living house has been in speculation for decades, not counting wonderful science-fiction stories even earlier. The animated Jetsons live in such a home, talking to it as if it were an animal or person. I think the metaphor is close but not quite correct. The adaptive house of the future will be more like an ecology of organisms than a single being, more like a jungle than a dog.

The ingredients for an ecological house are visible in an ordinary contemporary house. I can already program my home's thermostat to automatically run our furnace at different temperatures during weekdays and weekends. In essence, fire is networked to a clock. Our VCR knows how to tell time and talk to the TV. As computers continue to collapse into mere dots which find themselves wired into all appliances, it is reasonable to expect our washing machine, stereo, and smoke alarm to communicate in a householdwide network. Someday soon, when a visitor rings the doorbell, the doorbell will turn down the vacuum cleaner so that we can hear its chime. When the clothes are done in the washer, it will flash a message on the TV to let us know it's ready for the dryer. Even furniture will become part of the living forest. A microchip in a couch will sense the presence of a sitter and turn the heat up in the room.

The vehicle for this house-net, as it is presently envisioned by engineers in several research labs, is a universal outlet peppering the rooms in every home. You plug everything into it. Your telephone, computer, doorbell, furnace, and vacuum cleaner all insert into the same outlet to get both power and information. These smart outlets dispense 110-volt juice only to "qualified" appliances and only when they request it. When you plug a smart object into the house-net, its chip declares its identity ("I am a toaster"), status ("I am turned on"), and need ("Give me 10 watts of 110"). A child's fork or broken cord won't get power.

Outlets trade information all the time, powering-up things when needed. Most importantly, the networked outlets bundle many wires into one socket, so that intelligence, energy, information, and communication can be sucked from any point. You plug a doorbell button in a socket near the front door; you can then plug a doorbell chime into any socket in any room. Plug in a stereo in one room, and music is ready in all the other rooms as well. Likewise, the clock. Soon universal time signals will be transmitted through all power and telephone lines. Once something is plugged in anywhere, it will at least know the time and date and automatically recalibrate daylight savings when instructed by the master timekeeper in Greenwich, England or the U.S. Naval Observatory. All information plugged into the household net will also be shared. The furnace's thermostat can feed a room's temperature to any appliance that would like to know, say, a fire alarm or a ceiling fan. Anything that can be measured--level of light, motion of inhabitants, noise level -- can be broadcast into the home's network.

An intelligently wired house would be a lifesaver to the disabled and elderly. From a switch near the bed, they could control the lights, TV, and security gizmos in the rest of the house. An ecological building would also be moderately more energy efficient. Says Ian Allaby, a journalist reporting on the dawning smart-house trade, "You might not want to climb from bed to run the dishwasher at 2 A.M. to save 15 cents, but if you could pre-arrange the utility to switch the machine on for you, then great!" The prospect of decentralized efficiency is attractive to utility companies, since the profits in efficiency are greater than those in building a new power plant.

So far, nobody actually lives in a smart house. A grand partnership of electronic firms, building industry associations, and telephone companies banded together in 1984 under the umbrella of Smart House Partnership to develop protocols and hardware for an intelligent house. As of late 1992 the group had built about a dozen demo homes to distract reporters and garner investments. The partnership dropped their initial 1984 vision of a standard one-size-fits-all outlet as too radical on first pass. For interim technology, Smart House uses wiring that divides functions into three cables and three connections at the outlet box (AC power, DC power, and communications). This would allow "backward compatibility" -- the opportunity to plug dumb ol' power tools and appliances into the house without having to scrap them for new smart objects. Competing agencies in the U.S., Japan, and Europe play with other ideas and other standards, including using a wireless infrared network to connect widgets. This would enable portable battery-powered devices, or nonelectric objects to be linked into the web. Doors could have small semi-intelligent chips that "plug in" via invisible signals in the air, to let the household ecology know that a room was closed or that a visitor was coming down the hall.