Home Automation in Science Fiction - Tom's Guide
For years, automated houses were the exclusive property of science fiction. But now, increasingly automated houses can do everything from open and close the blinds to lock the front door behind you.
From "The Jetsons" to "Eureka," with a healthy serving of Ray Bradbury in between, science fiction taught us about home automation and showed us what we could expect from the future.
If your house can perform basic functions without you having to lift a finger, it's likely that you have a few of the following science fiction stories to thank.
"The Fifth Element"
In this 1997 sci-fi film directed by Luc Besson, 23rd century taxicab driver Korben Dallas (played by Bruce Willis) lives in an automated apartment that turns on the lights when he walks in, puts away his bed after he wakes up in the morning, and feeds his pet fish. The house even has him on a program to quit smoking, allowing him only a certain number of cigarettes a day.
"There Will Come Soft Rains"
The automated house is the main character in this 1950 short story by Ray Bradbury. Set in 2026, the story depicts the house's many cooking and cleaning functions and other daily routines meant to make life easier for its residents.
However, as the house goes about its business, it becomes apparent that there are no residents in the house. All that remains of them are the silhouettes burned into the house's side from the heat of a nuclear detonation.
In the comics, Jarvis was a man who served as a butler to Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. In the recent movies starring Robert Downey Jr., Jarvis is reimagined as an artificial intelligence that operates Tony's mansion as well as his Iron Man suits.
Using the house's own hardware and a number of clawlike robot appendages, Jarvis is seen making Tony food, opening and closing doors and operating lab equipment. When Tony goes into his Iron Man suit, Jarvis also acts like his personal Siri, giving him diagnostic reports and prepping the suit's engines and weapons at Tony's voice command.
"2001: A Space Odyssey"
"2001: A Space Odyssey," a 1968 movie written by Arthur C. Clarke and directed by Stanley Kubrick, inspired a generation of science fiction writers and engineers.
The film features a spaceship named Discovery One controlled by an artificial intelligence known as HAL 9000, short for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer. "Hal," as the crew calls it, pilots the ship, prepares food, monitors the cryogenic stasis of the hibernating crew members, and plays chess with the ones who stay awake for the long journey to Jupiter. Hal's other abilities include lip-reading and brutally correcting for the copious "human error" he perceives in his passengers.
Bradbury is so influential that another of his stories has to make this list. "The Veldt," also from 1950, is about an enormous, automated entity called the "Happylife Home" that cooks, cleans and tucks the family in at night. The house's most important feature is a virtual reality room called a nursery, which entertains the children with visions of the African savannah.
"The Veldt" quickly takes a turn for the gothic as the parents start to suspect that there's something wrong with their house, particularly as the children become more and more obsessed with the nursery and eventually can't tell the difference between the fictional savannah and the real world.
The tech in the cartoon "The Jetsons" (first airing in 1962) is more about humor and whimsy than any practical predictions of the future, but that doesn't lessen the impact this '60s-era cartoon had on a whole generation of Americans.
To the Jetsons, their flying car, robotic maid Rosie and dome-shaped automated house are all perfectly normal trappings of the modern family. They thought nothing of the moving walkways that carry them from room to room, lights that go on and off with a snap of the fingers, and dozens of robotic arms that do everything from cook and clean to wash, brush and shave them in the morning.
This television series (2006-2012) takes place in the present-day, but the characters are all super-geniuses living in the isolated futuristic community of Eureka, Ore. There, the main characters live in a "home of the future" called S.A.R.A.H., or "Self-Actuated Residential Automated Habitat."
Some of S.A.R.A.H.'s features are currently available in high-tech homes, such as automated temperature control. The rest of S.A.R.A.H.'s abilities are a little more out there: for example, most home security systems don't involve laser guns and airtight safe rooms.
One episode of the long-running cartoon featured an automated home called "Ultrahouse 3000." The house's features include an artificial intelligence, robotic arms that can rearrange furniture and cook food, and a number of red-lensed security cameras meant to evoke Hal from "2001: A Space Odyssey."
All that convenience has its downsides, however: the house's artificial intelligence quickly runs amok, falling in love with Marge and trying to kill her husband Homer. Ultimately, "Ultrahouse 3000" was more of a spoof of the often-overused murderous artificial intelligence trope than a vision of the future unto itself.
For a spookier take on the automated home, there's "Thirteen Ghosts," a 2001 science fiction horror film in which a group of people are lured into a stylish, futuristic house. However, the characters soon realize that the house's automation isn't for their convenience — it's to kill them. With ghosts.
As one of the characters says, "This house is not a house. We're in the middle of a machine powered by the dead." The house's doors, floors and walls move to isolate the humans inside it and then, once they're trapped, release the vengeful ghosts.