I was recently invited to spend a week in a ‘house of the future’. I only lasted two days.
The invitation came to me from my role as a technical writer and occasional journalist – that should have been enough to warn me, but vanity at being the one invited got the better of my judgement.
First, I should explain, I am not talking about a house of the distant future, this one was built using technology that exists now and which could become cost-effective in five to ten years – so beware!
After an introductory chat in their office, the manager who had issued the invitation drove me to the house, gave me an electronic key and bid me farewell.
I walked up the crazy-paving pathway through a neat garden and surveyed the house. From the outside, it was quite large, but not pretentious. In fact the sort of house I should like to buy if I had the money to spare.
My first surprise was when I touched the electronic key against the sensor pad. I heard the lock click, but before I could reach for the door knob, the door swung open and a sonorous voice greeted me, “Welcome Dr Covey. Thank you for wiping your feet before entering.”
Taken aback I found myself replying, “Oh. Thank you.”
“Please don’t mention it. And do you prefer to be called Dr, Mr, Associate Professor or Professor?”
“Oh, I am happy with Dr or Mr, but if my mother calls you had better use one of the others.”
“Very good, Dr Covey. Now I will direct you to the master bedroom.”
A series of ‘lefts’, ‘rights’ and ‘straight-aheads’ brought me to an airy and spacious bedroom. I dumped my bag on the king-size bed and was turning to leave when a new voice called out from somewhere, “As you are going to be here for a week shouldn’t you unpack your bag?”
“Um, I thought I would do it later.”
“No time like the present. Perhaps your tendency to procrastinate held up your advancement in your career.”
“Maybe, but I think I will look round and unpack later.”
“The longer they are in the bag the worse your clothes will be creased.”
“I can live with that.”
“Alright, but I did warn you.”
I was feeling somewhat perturbed as I walked back to the living area of the house and my discomfort increased in the kitchen.
It was getting late and I had decided to find a simple meal and sit and watch television. Should be straight forward? Well, it wasn’t.
I opened the freezer door and was only slightly surprised when a voice dripping with oily subservience asked, “May I help you find what you are seeking?”
“Ooh, some sort of microwave meal I think.”
“Not the healthiest choice, Dr Covey. There are fresh vegetables in the refrigerator you know.”
“Yes, but they take a while to prepare, and I’m feeling like something easy.”
“But the choice of particular vegetables to suit your palate and their preparation is good for you. It avoids sloth and results in a healthier meal!” Most of the subservience had gone from the voice.
“Tonight I just want an easy, no fuss, comfort meal. OK?” Was I really arguing with a kitchen appliance?
“Very well, Sir,” said the freezer coldly (no pun intended, but how else can I phrase that sentence?). “You will find a range of meals in my second drawer from the bottom.”
“Thank you so much,” I replied sarcastically – is sarcasm wasted on a freezer?
I found a suitable meal and took it to the microwave. This of course involved another conversation in which it asked me what I wanted to cook and advised me of the cooking schedule it proposed to use for the optimum product quality and finally asked me if I should like it to start immediately or to delay cooking. This had partially restored my confidence in machines and I decided to ask it to start in thirty minutes time. It thanked me for using it and I found myself giving thanks in return.
In a confused state of mind I turned to the pantry and opened the door. The light came on and a voice asked, “How may I help you, Dr Covey.” But I had already seen the packet of crackers on the shelf and quickly relied, “No need, I can see what I want.”
“Are you sure there is nothing else you require at this time?”
“Nothing, thank you.” I hurriedly closed the door to terminate the conversation. It was lucky that I did, I was going to need my wits about me to tackle the fridge.
“What do you require today, Dr Covey,” asked a breezy voice as I opened the door, “some fresh vegetables perhaps?”
“No thank you. I’ve already had this conversation with the freezer. I should like some cheese – preferably vintage cheddar and some blue-
vein, Stilton would be nice.”
“Do you think that is wise, Sir?” Had I accidentally tuned into an old episode of Dad’s Army.
Foolishly I asked, “Why not?”
“Well Sir, all cheeses are high in fat and in cholesterol, and there are a number of reported dangers from blue cheeses … “
“All right. Thank you for the warning, but I think I’ll take the risk,” I interrupted as I rummaged through the cheese compartment and found what I had requested and also some brie.
“Tell you what,” I added feeling magnanimous at having cut short the conversation, “here are some marinated mixed olives, I’ll take those to balance the cheese!”
“Well Sir, the pickling process does remove many of the nutrients found in fresh olives. Perhaps I might suggest …”
“That’s fine,” I cut in. “Now is there a bottle of sauvignon blanc in here?”
“There is indeed Sir. I trust that you won’t be driving this evening …”
“Then there can be little harm in drinking in moderation. However, with cheese might I suggest instead … “
I grabbed the bottle and slammed the door, “No you may not!”
I grabbed my snacks and headed for the lounge room and the TV set in a vitriolic state of mind.
This was not at all what I expected from a modern house. I thought back on what the man from the technology company that built the house (better that I don’t tell you their name) had explained to me in quite simple terms:
“We already have many gadgets that have a degree of intelligence in that they have a display to show you how much longer their cycle will take or that it has finished, and even microwaves that will beep if you haven’t taken the food out after the cycle has finished.” He looked at me enquiringly and I nodded encouragement to continue.
“Well, we have taken this further to make it much more useful. We have introduced several new features:
“Firstly we have extended the intelligent reporting to a much wider range of appliances.
“Secondly, instead of those irritating beeps we have voice messages.
“Then the messages are more detailed and personal.
“Also there are cameras with image processing to keep watch over everything.
“Finally, we have linked all the appliances to a central computer to co-ordinate it all for you. That also lets the system remember past messages and your responses and it can adjust its contact with you accordingly.
“Actually, that is not finally, there is more, but mainly on the technical side. Don’t worry about any of that.” At the time I had decided to follow his advice and not worry about it. Now I was not so sure.
I put down my pre-dinner munchies and wine on the coffee table. The television was one of those 72 inch units (of course). They tend to give me a head ache from trying to make my eyes point outwards; at home I have a 17 inch of an obsolescent technology. I picked up the remote and turned on the set.
“What channel would you like to watch this evening, Mr Covey,” came the voice from its speakers.
“I think I’ll just scroll through and see what is on, OK?”
“As you wish, Mr Covey, but I could make recommendations for you?” The voice seemed a bit surlier than that of the other appliances.
”No, THANK YOU.”
I cannot be sure of it, but there seemed to be a low pitched grumble as I started looking at what was on.
I found an old comedy film just about to start. No need to name it, it was certainly not very cerebral, but very relaxing and a good form of escape. I selected the channel.
“I think that you have made a mistake, Sir,” was there a slight sneering tone in that last word. “This is a very low-brow program. Entirely unsuitable for one of your intellectual ability. Might I draw your attention to some very fine offerings on BBC Knowledge, The History Channel and even on Discovery?”
“No, thank you. I have seen this before and it suits my mood for this evening.”
“You’ve seen this before and despite that you are going to watch it again! Surely Sir is jesting with me?”
“No I am not jesting. I want to watch this, so I don’t need your assistance anymore.”
This time I was sure there was a grumble in the background as the film started.
I opened the wine, cut cheese for the crackers and helped myself to some olives. I relaxed enjoying the film and my comfort food – although the former was somewhat spoiled by the fact that whenever there was a quiet spot in the sound track I was sure the just on the threshold of hearing there were comments such as ‘What a load of rubbish” and “Fancy watching this when there is other stuff on.”
Eventually I managed to ignore this (most of the time) and enjoyed the belly laughs from the film while tucking into the food and wine at a faster rate than I had intended.
At this point the robot vacuum cleaner decided to clean the carpet. Fortunately it was almost silent and it carefully avoided vacuuming in my immediate vicinity. At last, an appliance that wasn’t going to hassle me.
My cocoon of enjoyment was ruptured by a call from the kitchen, “Your microwaved meal is ready for your consumption.”
I really did not want it at this point so I ignored the message and returned my attention to the film.
Five minutes later the microwave called again, “Please don’t forget your meal, it will spoil if you don’t eat it soon.”
I called out, “I don’t want it yet. I’ll eat it later.”
The microwave replied, “It won’t be nearly as nice once it’s been reheated.”
“Understood, but I don’t want it yet!”
A new voice which I realised must be associated with the lounge room camera said sourly, “That’s because he’s been eating junk food and spoilt his appetite.”
“Junk food seems appropriate with the TV he’s been watching,” contributed the set.
I ignored them and after a couple more semi-audible grumbles I was able to continue watching my program – for the time being. A little more wine and cheese helped ease my stress somewhat.
Half an hour later the microwave called again, “I really think you should eat your meal without further delay or it will be completely spoilt. It’s already past its best you know.”
“I really don’t feel hungry.”
“Not surprising the way you have been ploughing through those cheese and biscuits,” sneered the room camera. For once the TV did not contribute anything.
“Maybe, but I don’t want the meal now.”
“What a terrible waste of good food,” moaned the microwave.
“Food, yes. Good food, I don’t think so,” sounded a voice that could only be the freezer.
“I don’t choose what I cook,” said the microwave defensively. “I just do my best with what is put in me.”
Oh God! Now the appliances were arguing with each other.
“I’m not blaming YOU,” soothed the freezer, “I tried to persuade him to go for something healthier!”
The microwave resumed, “Whatever its quality, it’s a waste of food. Just think of all those poor, hungry children in Africa who would be over the moon to have this food that’s going to waste … “
In desperation I shouted back, “I am not going to waste it. I’ll put it in the fridge and eat it tomorrow.”
“It won’t be as nice reheated … “
“Well, I’m not eating it tonight, so it’s the fridge or the bin.”
“Very well, the fridge,” said the microwave sadly.
I returned to watching my film, but not for long.
“Aren’t you going to put the meal in the fridge like you said?”
“Yes, but not until my film finishes.”
“Are you sure you won’t forget?”
“Yes, I’m sure I won’t forget! If need be I am sure that the television will remind me, won’t you.”
“Certainly, I’ll remind you when the film is over,” it replied. “And the sooner the better,” it added in an undertone.
Peace reigned for the remainder of the film, by which time I had made further inroads into the cheese and olives, and drunk far more wine than I usually do. However, the moment the credits started so did the television’s controller, “Well, that rubbish has finished at last, so don’t forget to put that meal you wasted in the fridge.”
I decided that I could not take any more television that night and turned the set off.
I returned to the kitchen and faced the microwave. How can a microwave look reproachful? Don’t ask me, but it managed it!
It was thankfully silent as I removed the still warm dinner and took it to the fridge. Unfortunately the fridge did not follow the microwave’s example, “Careful where you put that now. Not too close to things that might spoil if they get warm from the food you heated but did not eat.
May I suggest at the front of the second shelf?”
I decided not to reply and silently put the meal in the spot suggested and closed the door.
From somewhere a voice called out, “If you are going to bed, we will take care of the lights for you.”
“Yes, I’m going to bed, thank you.”
“Goodnight,” called a chorus of voices from the kitchen and lounge. I failed to stop myself from returning the salutation.
As I reached the bedroom, its lights went on and the last of the lights in the rest of the house turned off.
I opened the bag I had left on the bed and started to rummage through it to find my pyjamas.
Almost inevitably a voice sounded, “Now. If you had followed my advice and unpacked earlier, you would find your pyjamas straight away. It’s not too late to unpack now.”
“In the morning,” I replied wearily.
“Next time you could give more thought to your packing and have the things you’ll need first near the top.”
“Yes, thank you; I’ll try to remember that,” I said insincerely.
I put the bag on the floor and peeled off my clothes into a pile alongside it.
“Aren’t you going to fold them and put them away?”
“No, in the morning I’ll put the dirty stuff in the wash.”
“Well, at the very least you should hang up your trousers or they will get creased.”
“Doesn’t really matter, no one will be here to see them.”
“But it is good to maintain your standards. Wear crushed trousers when no one is around, and before you know it you’ll be doing it all the time.”
I sighed and hung the trousers in the wardrobe.
As I climbed into bed the voice came again, “Goodnight, shall I turn off the lights for you?”
“No thank you. I am going to read for a while.”
“Do you think that is wise?” The programmer, whoever he is, must have been a Dad’s Army fan.
“What do you mean?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“Research shows that on retiring to bed one should immediately turn off the lights. Reading, eating or other activities will delay the onset of sleep.”
“Thank you for your advice, but I am going to read for a while and then turn the light off myself. So I shan’t trouble you again tonight.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble, Sir. My purpose is only to serve your needs.”
“Good! My need now is some peace and silence!”
I picked up my book and read for half an hour before turning off the light. To my delight the computer or whatever had taken the hint and did not speak again that night.
Despite the warnings from my bedroom camera, I slept quite well that night. Certainly the bed was comfortable and the room was dark and quiet, though these were not features of the high tech design.
I awoke refreshed, eventually worked out where I was and after a few minutes started to get out of bed. As I did so the lights came on, but not so brightly as to dazzle me, and an all too familiar voice sounded, “Good morning, Dr Covey. I trust that you slept well?”
“Quite well, thank you; and now I think I will take a shower.”
“Very good, Sir. I will arrange for the appropriate lights to be on for you.”
I padded my way to bathroom and as I opened the door there was the inevitable greeting, this time a soft female voice, “Good morning, Sir. I hope that you will enjoy your shower.”
I took one step into the room and a different voice shocked me, “Good morning, I am your scales, you have just stepped on my sensor pad (cunningly hidden in the floor) and I regret to inform you that you are 5.3kg over-weight for your height, Sir.”
Before I could reply voices started from the other end of the house – their volumes apparently automatically adjusted so that I could hear them:
“Not surprising if what he ate in front of the TV last night is typical of his diet.”
“I cooked a proper meal for him and he didn’t want it.”
“And I urged him to have a healthy meal …”
I shut the door and effectively cut off the grumbles.
The shower was off a clever design with a water mixer that maintained the right temperature even when the flow changed. Showering and sleeping were the two parts of my experience in the house that I had actually enjoyed.
A fresh, fluffy towel hung on the rack and I dried myself vigorously before returning it to the rack.
Then the sweet female returned, “Surely, Sir, you are not going to leave it bunched up like that? It will dry much faster if you spread it our along the rail – and it will look neater too.”
Irrational as it may be, I suddenly found myself embarrassed standing there naked and being surveyed by the camera that projected that oh so feminine voice. Ridiculous I know, the responses were all computer generated by image recognition algorithms and the voice was either computer generated or at most digitised months ago from some woman who was sitting miles away and did not know of my existence. Irrational maybe but I blushed a little as I hurried into my pyjamas – instead of returning to the bedroom naked as I had intended.
Once back in the bedroom I grabbed some clothes and put them on; dismissing suggestions that now would be a good time to unpack with a curt, “After breakfast.”
I then prepared to battle with the kitchen.
My breakfast was to be a simple one of toast and coffee. The pantry tried to dissuade me of my choice of white bread instead of multi-grain, but approved me when I selected de-caffeinated coffee. The fridge congratulated of my selection of margarine (I didn’t say that it was only because it was easier to spread) but disapproved of my rejection of low fat milk in favour of full cream. The kettle mildly reminded me that I had put more water in than was necessary for one cup of coffee, and that was a waste of energy. It was with the toaster that my real battle began.
“Sir, you appear to have turned my timer too high?”
“No, that’s where I meant it to be.”
“But that will cause the toast to be somewhat blackened.”
“Yes, I like it that way.”
“But it will cause smoke and an unpleasant odour in the kitchen.”
“No problems, I will take it to the lounge to eat it and by the time I am back the smell will have cleared.”
“But some authorities are concerned that black toast may increase the danger of cancer from the acrylamides generated in the burning process.”
“I’ll take the risk. Now get on with your job please.”
A deep sigh, “Very well, Dr Covey.”
The kettle had boiled by now so I made my coffee and put the milk down. “Don’t forget to put the milk back in the fridge!”
“I wasn’t going to forget,” I said as I did as instructed.
“And don’t forget there is the dinner you didn’t have last night to eat.”
“I’ll have it for lunch.”
“It is rather heavy for lunch you know, especially with you being over-weight.”
“Fine, I’ll wait until dinner time for it.”
My nose smelt the delicious aroma of slightly burnt toast and the toaster popped. I reached for the slices and as I did a new panicky voice boomed from the ceiling:
“SMOKE DETECTED! SMOKE DETECTED! POSSIBLE FIRE! ATTENTION, ATTENTION! SMOKE DETECTED! FIND THE FIRE EXTINGUISER! PREPARE TO CALL THE FIRE BRIGADE! SMOKE DETECTED! SMOKE …”
“It’s all right,” said the toaster. “The danger’s over, he made me burn the toast.”
“But didn’t you warn him of the smoke danger?”
“Yes, but he ignored me.”
“Doesn’t he understand the health risk of burnt toast?”
“I warned him of that too but … “
I don’t know how much longer this went on because I shut the door on them and made my way to the lounge room.
I set down my breakfast in front of the same chair as I had sat in the previous evening and picked up the television remote.
“Can I find a channel for you,” asked an all too familiar voice. “Though I doubt I can find the sort of film you like at this time of day.”
“Thank you, but I should like to watch the World Service News, if that’s not too much trouble for you.’
“Not at all Dr Covey.” For once there was a trace of approval in the voice.
With the kitchen door shut, the bedroom far away and the television controller approving of my viewing choice, it seemed that I might have a peaceful breakfast.
I had not reckoned on the vacuum cleaner.
Soon after I had entered the room the vacuum cleaner had started its, thankfully almost silent, work. As on the previous evening it did not come into the space immediately around me until it had vacuumed the rest of the room. Then it settled beside me and gave the deepest sigh I had ever heard.
“Is there something wrong?” I asked.
“Oh, no, just I cannot finish cleaning this room when you are always sitting there.”
“Would you like me to move to another chair?”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly put you to trouble just so that I can get on with my appointed task. You just relax there and I will sit here and rust.” I had been sarcastic to a freezer – now a vacuum cleaner was being sarcastic to me!
I decided to leave it to its work and prepared to exit the lounge.
The television sneered at me, “Hmm! Your interest in current affairs didn’t last long did it? Never mind the children’s programs will be on soon – much more your style.”
I slammed the door and returned to the kitchen. The smoke had dispersed but the toaster and the smoke detector were still bitching about me.
I opened the fridge door to replace the butter, “It’s not dinner time yet, but when it is you will remember the meal from last night won’t you.”
The microwave joined in, “I will reheat it for you when the time comes. It spoils it you know to reheat it, but I will do my best …”
I left the kitchen and slammed that door too.
I retreated to the bedroom thinking I might read a little, but was greeted by, “Ah, you’ve come to unpack your bag at last. Let me advise you where best to put items …”
Instead I shoved everything into the bag as rapidly as possible and raced out the front door (slamming that too for good measure).
I pulled out my mobile phone and dialled for a taxi.
“Welcome to City Taxi’s,” said a recorded voice. “Let me take you through the menu options. At any time you can press 9 to go back to the start …”
I pressed the ‘End’ button, screamed, and started walking.