As smart home technology becomes ever more capable and ubiquitous, we take a look at how artificially intelligent and tech-first homes have changed in films and TV over the years, from the X-Files to Iron Man.
They say that magic is just science we haven’t quite worked out yet. Similarly, perhaps science fiction is just a vision of the future which hasn’t yet come to pass. After all, with technology moving as quickly as it does, who knows where we’ll be in a year’s time – let alone a decade or two down the line. It doesn’t bear thinking about, really.
Which is why, to avoid a particularly painful stress headache, this article looks mostly at links between the pop-culture past and present-day tech, poking around just a little at the possible future, unsteady and stretching out so improbably in front of us.
Technology can often, understandably – if erroneously – feel like something that’s only really happening somewhere else. Something entirely separate from the humdrum of daily life. It’s not – of course – that we don’t use computers, telecommunications devices of all sorts, and all manner of other life-improving and time-saving gadgets pretty much every moment of the waking day to various degrees, but more that capital-T “Tech,” as a concept, feels like a distant star. Enormous and remote, its gravitational ripples affecting our lives only imperceptibly in ways it’s better to accept than try to understand.
But – with that in mind – there have been a whole host of developments closer to home worth paying attention to. Much closer, actually. As in, the home itself. In fact, science fiction movies have been pondering the evolution of the tech-savvy homestead, in various guises, for about as long as science fiction movies have been pondering anything. And they do love to ponder. So, while I concede that sci-fi purists might be wounded by this trajectory – bear with me. Let’s start with an episode of The Simpsons (fittingly enough) from late-2001.
Featuring a brilliant turn from Pierce Brosnan as the super-intelligent and imaginatively named “Ultrahouse 3000,” the classic Treehouse of Horrorepisode takes its cues from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece,2001: A Space Odyssey, and Donald Cammell’s lesser-known 1977 sci-fi horror Demon Seed.
But, putting Brosnan’s magnetic performance aside – if that’s even really possible – what’s particularly interesting about this episode is that, 33 and 24 years later, respectively, the touchstones for an artificially intelligent – or even just technologically integrated – house were still works of cinematic science-fiction from the previous century. The very idea was an abstract concept that could only be parodied in homage to yet another fiction. After all, back in the halcyon days of real-world 2001, most people were still losing their internet connection when the phone rang.
More prescient still, however, is that – in both the source material and the Simpsons parody, as well as other notable examples from 1982’sBlade Runner andTron to 2004’s I, Robot – the machines are inevitably too smart for their own good and, ultimately, become malevolent in their superiority. All this is to say that, less than twenty years ago, A.I. homes were still being portrayed more like haunted houses than life-improving technological advances.
With rapid advances in technology coming to more or less define the era it’s hardly surprising that, as a theme, this came up again and again in popular culture. (Floppy disk to CD; Betamax to VHS to DVD; cassette to 8-track, mini disc to CDs and Mp3s; punch-card monsters to personal computers; the dot com boom and the rise of mobile phones – the list goes on.)
In fact, not only was it the basis for the (rightly) much-maligned 1993 episode of The X-Files, “Ghost in the Machine,” but A.I. was once again Mulder and Scully’s monster of the week in “Kill Switch” – another episode from 1998. It’s a cliché, of course, but art does reflect life – accurately or otherwise.
Fear, however, only ever takes us so far. And, eventually – inevitably – perceptions began to change. Despite the deep level of distrust bred by popular culture over the years – and questions that still abound, reasonably and otherwise, over the “dangers” of true Artificial Intelligence – personal automation began to make its way into the hands and homes of average families at pace from the late 00s and through the 10s.
From its initial development and subsequent release by SRI International Artificial Intelligence Center in 2010 to its astute acquisition by Apple and near-immediate integration into the iOS as of 2011, SiRi has been the literal friendly voice of machine learning in the pockets of 33.3% of the world’s smartphone users (and 9.4% of the entire population – which is, I don’t need to tell you, a lot).
But, of course, the tide was already turning. No company in their right mind, not even one as influential and capable of shifting public opinion as Apple, after all, would gamble on putting something in their consumers’ hands that was more or less guaranteed to scare them.
Incrementally, popular culture more often came to mirror reality and to project a more positive, short-term future of a life lived alongside advanced technology than tapping into the fear factor. As early as 2003, a simple moment of comic relief in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation sees Bill Murray flummoxed by self-timed hotel blinds that open of their own accord to let in the light at an hour he clearly considers less than appropriate. (Interestingly, too, in 2013’s Her – often considered Spike Jonze’s response to or, at the very least, a companion piece for his by-then-ex-wife Coppola’s film – the machines are so intelligent and so empathetic that they can no longer stomach a life alongside humanity, opting instead to leave together in search of a better life without our many flaws.)
TV shows like Grand Designs, too, also increasingly prove that similar technology – from automatic ambient lighting to those flashy electrochromic windows that so often cover the outside of the kind of homes that Kevin McCloud considers Grand enough to make the grade – is now becoming so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine it as the punchline.
In fact – instead of promoting outdated notions of clunky, malicious or predatory software – in many ways, cinema quickly began to pave the way for positive and productive views on the kind of technology we might once have considered purely fantastical.
Take GERTY, the well-mannered robot from Duncan Jones’ 2009 sci-fi dramaMoon: not only programmed with a human voice but literally equipped with a facial screen that displays pixelated happy and sad emoticons depending on his mood.
Look, too, at Tony Stark’s Malibu compound from Marvel’s Avengers movie franchise: (possibly) based on the Razor House in San Diego – an equally jaw-dropping piece of architecture, though with a little less of that hubristic Pacific Ocean cliffside vertigo than its fictional counterpart – Stark’s billionaire-tech-playboy-house-cum-crisis-of-conscience-superhero-bunker is controlled by an artificial intelligence so powerful it gets a character all of its own down the franchise line. Affectionately known as J.A.R.V.I.S., the system is a little like if Star Trek’s replicators, holodecks and engineering bays all banded together, claimed sentience and a very amicable personality voiced by Paul Bettany.
As a widely-available system, it’s fair to say that we may be some way off a J.A.R.V.I.S. of our, but – given that he first appeared in the original 2008 movie – we’ve already gone some way toward catching up since then: interactive, integrated systems like Cestron and Control4 may not be doing our chores for us just yet, but the myriad things that they can do – at speeds and with accuracy that we can only dream of – would only have been the purview of science-fiction a decade or so earlier.
With the rapidity of change, it’s hard to know what’s next – and guessing is truly a fool’s game of epic proportions – but Denis Vileneuve’s divisive 2017 sequel,Blade Runner 2049, set 30 years after Ridley Scott’s original, makes more astute observations than most. In Vileneuve’s world – only 29 years from now – technology has advanced so far that it occupies all spaces: some is to be feared, some to be used and some, as Jonze began to muse four years earlier, even to be loved.
Imagining the future is all but impossible, even for something as immediate as the places we live and the objects we carry. One thing seems for sure, though: our connection to, integration and personal relationship with technology is not only likely to become deeper but also more meaningful.