Lamplighters in cyberspace
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #30

After diving into cyberspace for a while, people are often relieved to temporarily return to brickspace - which is what I call the 'real world'. On the other hand, it would be nice if the knowbots and electronic agents that will one day cater to all your information needs could do the same for your lights and thermostat. Maybe they could learn your personal lighting preferences for different hours of the day, and adapt to your activities and moods. Technology is a decorated excuse for laziness.

When you have the information superhighway at your doorstep, why not invite it inside? Let software reach beyond the World Wide Web into the World Wide Lamplighter, let programs change more than your accounts or your photographs, and you've opened up a whole new area of information technology - appliance control.

Gadgets have been controlled by computers long before the infobahn was even dreamt of. Large, cumbersome gadgets that manufacture jet engines or process iron to steel. But your bedside lamp still waits for you to turn it off. Appliance control devices basically help you turn your bedside lamp off for you - they control the resistance in a light dimmer, or the current to a motor that opens a door, or the thermostat of an air conditioner. Appliance control devices are themselves controlled by software. The software could come from anywhere - even an electronic network. Cyberspace meets refrigerators.

Appliance controllers could be attached to everything. One for each lamp, power point, door, window shade and chair leg. All the controllers will be networked, so that they can talk to each other, to the set-top box on an interactive TV or to a notebook computer at the other end of the world. To intelligent agents, the digital butlers trained to learn your preferences as you work in the realm of information, talking to an appliance controller would be as natural as searching for a book in an electronic library. Feedback sensors associated with appliances could inform the agents how you like your pizza, or when to darken the room as you fall asleep, reading. They would also switch things of as you leave the room, saving you the trouble as well as the pangs of guilt. Of course it would be like living not with Big Brother, but dozens of little Lilliputian ones, watching, listening and working for you.

To realize this dream, in 1988, Apple Computer co-founder Mike Markkula started Echelon, a company to promote and manufacture networked appliance controllers. Echelon's controller, the Neuron chip, is a little device that talks to the universe through radio. Echelon hopes that its product will become the standard and start appearing just everywhere, but for the moment the major market is industrial. Manufacturers long used to computers controlling devices that build cars and trains are beginning to place appliance controllers within them.

A Motorola study suggests that the average home in the year 2000 will have a little under 250 controller chips, but currently homes have only 50 or so, mainly in VCRs, microwave ovens and other hi-tech devices. So until twenty- first century consumers are ready for synchronized lights that turn on as you enter the room, and are willing to trust the complex software that will drive large controller networks, cyberspace pioneers will just have to dream on.

Blurring the boundaries between cyberspace and brickspace, between information and reality, appliance control devices and networks can greatly increase the efficiency of living. They can save energy, improve security, and make you feel quite pampered in a comfortable home. Unless, that is, your sulking apartment refuses to let you in.

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