Readers' Comments

Date: Wed, 10 Sep 1997 18:03:09
From: "Bob Frankston"
Subject: Re: Intelligent house

I wrote a longer reply and then my machine crashed so I'll be briefer. I do agree with energy being the ultimate fungible commodity and the value of being able to mix and match is high enough to make up for some of the inefficiencies in electricity. Having watched some of the DSM (Demand Side Management) issues and the post-deregulation utility confusion I don't think that the naive first attempts to turn off your dishwasher will work. What intelligent appliances (what intelligent means is a longer discussion) will allow is a marketplace for energy management policies embodied in software. There will be simple choices like economy on/off as whether to wash the dishes now or do deadline scheduling against the need to have them for breakfast. The rate structure will have to be much simpler the millisecond to millisecond billing if the system is to be at all reliable. Cogeneration might very well work in this environment though there will have some sort of market-maker to keep the complexity in hand. Have I become too much of a capitalist? On the other hand, I'm too lazy and bored to do any real financial management of my own -- better to put the effort into activities that earn new cash so I don't need to be so careful. But, the analogy with financial management is probably a good one as energy management will be another buyable service. In fact, PG&E is an example of a post-deregulatory company that is more like a mutual fund for energy than a producer.

Sept. 03, 1997

George Kamburoff


I canít reply to the 1000-year scenario, nor to even one of  100-years.  I think the acceleration of technology simply makes it impossible, so Iíll stick to about 20 years or so.  I donít believe we can accurately foretell what technologies will be developed after that time.  I do, of course, have my own view of things directly ahead.

Housing units of the future (letís call them "pods"), will be a set of integrated systems to provide life-support for the occupants. They will interconnect for the benefits of collective communications, power, resource-sharing, and waste sinks, and will have the ability to:

The pod will be essentially act as placenta for our family groups, surrounding and responding to the occupants.  The structures will include materials already available, such as photovoltaic building materials, superinsulations and transparent insulation, as well as thermochromic and electrochromic glazing, providing the ability to collect, store, redirect, and convert light and heat at will or automatic control.

Distributed power will come from a locally-advantageous mix of electrochemical (fuel cells), solar thermal, photovoltaic, wind, and biological digestion.  Most of these systems will be centralized into housing clusters, will use thermal storage systems, cognitive control systems (advanced fuzzy logic), and have connections to grids.  With hydrogen used as the primary fuel, an electrolyzer/storage/fuel cell/water system would generate power without emissions of carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, particulates or significant heat.  Hydrogen storage and the use of ultracapacitors will handle long and short-term power needs.

Biological systems will be employed locally for food production, probably in hydroponic greenhouses.  Other biological systems would include algae for food (and perhaps hydrogen), digester for waste conversion to energy and resources, and the biological treatment of toxins.

Distributed communications will be multimode I/O, and will use satellites, bounce, fiber, and other systems for close interlink, providing our face to the world.

The most important aspect of this housing revolution is that we will expand into marginal areas, having the ability to live almost anywhere with energy self-sufficiency and low environmental impact.  The Arctic, mountaintops, savannas, jungle clearings, deserts, floating cities, are all possible sites for habitation with little significant adverse effect.

Subject: Intelligent House
Date: Fri, 15 Aug 1997 11:42:57 -0400
From: Nickersons


Just a couple of thoughts on your Intelligent House essay.

How do we get there from here?

Assuming co-generation can be perfected for use in a home, how do you build up enough of a market to make it financially feasible. Manufactured housing is currently "low end" and not a likely place to nurture a new unproved and initially expensive technology. It will be reasonably wealthy, well educated, professionals, who feel comfortable with technology who will pioneer it in their own homes. They will turn to "high end" custom home builders in their region to build for them. The economics won't make sense initially but these people will be willing to spend more on the technology to make a personal statement, or gain peer status, or what ever. At some point a critical mass of homes will be built, and a real market for products will emerge. The competition among producers in this new market will bring prices down. The general public will become aware of the technology and new demand from other segments of the housing market will encourage speculative builder and manufactured housing producers to add the Intelligent House to their product offerings. This is roughly what happened with home energy efficiency technology products over the last 20 years. A darker scenario is that the technology will be over hyped. Incompetent, but well meaning builders will cobble together poorly thought out systems and the whole industry will get a black eye in the publics perception. This is what happened to active solar homes.

You mentioned the uninsurability of some homes today (hurricanes in South Florida?). I see the real problem as the inability to secure mortgage money for these homes initially. Mortgages, weather written by local banks or mortgage companies, are "securitized". This means they are packaged together with similar mortgages and "sold" as a security with a predictable income stream on the capital markets. The key word is "similar", mortgage underwriters must abide by strict standards to insure that all the homes are of a similar "risk". Initially Intelligent Houses will probably not be underwritten until a track record for their performance is established. This is Catch 22; if you can't get a track record, you can't get a mortgage; if you can't get a mortgage, you can't get it built; if you can't get it built, you can't get a track record. Wait a minute, if I am a valued bank customer, or a builder with an established relationship with a local bank why won't they give me a mortgage and keep it in their portfolio rather than sell it. Its the banker's dilemma: borrow short and lend long. Making long term loans( like mortgages) with short term and volatile funds (like savings accounts). The risk is that interest rates rise and the bank is stuck with a 20 year loan on its books at an uncompetitive low interest rate. The banker's solution is "securitization", pass the risk on to investors. There is another solution available to the local bank. Most banks belong to the Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLB), a depression era institution that provides liquidity to its member banks. The FHLB has a blanket lien on all the member bank's assets and with this as security it is able to raise funds on international capital markets at very competitive rates (it is the worlds second largest issuer of debt, after the U.S Treasury). This allows the FHLB to offer long term money without the risk of interest rate shock. Using this FHLB money local banks can issue mortgages, keep them in their own loan portfolio, and not take an interest rate risk. You still have to convince your lending officer that the technology is a good investment but, that is a lot easier than trying to convince huge capital market underwriters to change their rules.

Finally, the idea of selling electricity back to "the grid" at ever changing market rates is about to become reality with the decoupling of electric generation from transmission. Previously long term contracts, at rates favorable to the power utility, were the only way to get on to "the grid". Decoupling will lower the cost of entry to electricity suppliers( conceivably you don't have to own any generating equipment, you can make your money arbitraging power costs). This means that even the most minuscule electric producer (an Intelligent House) should be marketable.

Subject: Comments and Suggestions response
Date: Sat, 9 Aug 1997 14:58:49 -0400 (EDT)

A common-sense, pragmatic approach, devoid of hysteria and reductio ad absurdums. Barring a two-mile wide comet on the horizon, this is the way it will go, driven by economics if logic is to no avail. The only unknowns are how (not whether) population is reduced or the ominous though remote possibility of relatively unlimited, and even cheaper energy---energy which translates directly to humans at the energy equivalent of 12000 bbls of oil each.

It may not be inevitable, but as you suggest, it is probable that old industrial societies, with paid-for infrastructure to "protect" will be late-comers to this type of change. We see some evidence in the more rapid transition to satellite communications in poor countries, bypassing the capital-intensive installation of poles and copper wire. I anticipate similar resistance to junking large central power plants and concomitant webs of copper wire. Likely and impossible to prevent terrorist attacks would cause realistic appraisal of their vulnerability and inherently poor economics.


I dunno---seemed well-balanced to me, unless insufficient attention was given to non-technological (social) factors-- see following "least well".


The structure of post gatherer-hunter society, which served exceedingly well until the mid-1940's, has been demolished by automobiles, zoning separating workers from employment, building codes which effectively stopped owner-builder construction of locally available materials as they accumulate tools, materials and money, reinstatement of serfdom by legislative fiat, forcing 20 years payment to architects, engineers, attorneys, accountants, banks, insurance companies, all for a house that is really rented from several levels of government. If a "homeowner" ceases to pay real estate taxes, sewer taxes, or income taxes the real owner quickly takes possession (The Bahamas are an exception).

Putting Humpty Dumpty back again may not be possible. The individual automobile, (gas, diesel, electric) isn't going go away, and electric doesn't eliminate pollution, simply moves it to the point of electric generation and beyond to facilities producing fuel, and to the factories producing photovoltaic components, fuel cell components, battery components, ad infinitum. It is unlikely that major change will occur until fossil fuels are exhausted. That will not happen for centuries---the reserves of coal, heavy oil, gas, methane hydrate are so huge. I would like to be more optimistic about employment of Lovins' principles in my lifetime or the lifetime of my children, but I am not. Change is inevitable, likely to be violent and painful, but quite far in the future, except for small and isolated oases. The art of the possible dictates attention be concentrated on these as examples to larger society, bearing in mind that an intelligent house is encumbered a great deal more by sociolegal hardening of the arteries (consequences of population-pressure) than by the purely technological deficiencies of present housing design.

Date: Thu, 7 Aug 1997
Subject: Re: Intelligent Houses & Co-generation

Hi Jock,

Thanks as always for stimulating a few of my brain cells. Thanks also for alerting me to the link to Rocky Mountain Institute. Back in the late seventies I spent a year publishing Solar Age Magazine and it is good to see folks like yourselves reawakening the national conversation of these issues which has seemed somewhat dormant on the topic these last two decades.

Your page is good. One typo--do you mean to say "smart hous" in the altavista search reference. As most folks ideas of future houses are conditioned by what Bill Gates is doing, you might want to compare/contrast respective visions. How much insulation--Saskatchewan house experiment late 70's with three foot thick walls and almost no windows? More on size of houses and owner's lifestyles?



Subject: Intelligent Houses
Date: Wed, 06 Aug 1997 11:10:58 -0400
From: "John D. Macomber"

Hi Jock,

My basic response is that all of the "optimized systems" you describe assume that the whole system impact is quantified somehow and that rational economic actors will act to help the whole system. This is obviously not true today; both the development cost of centuries of oil creation under the ground, and the eventual cleanup cost of heat and pollution, are not charged to the oil companies at all. I guess they will be charged to my children.

Similarly, a household in China wants a refrigerator and doesn't really care about penguins. The variable cost of the power again does not include the whole system cost at the level of the individual rationale economic actor.

Consideration of the whole system cost at this point in time will require developing economies to stay undeveloped. Not a flyer for them.

I suppose a free-market solution might be to develop and market "green" items to the developing world, where the seller would either see the scale in supporting a green economy, would subsidize this responsible behavior, or would find some other market-viable way to get individual consumers to select this behavior.

This is similar to how Collaborative Structures is trying to bring whole-system thinking to the construction industry: on a one at at time, market supportable, free enterprise model, not by committees and consortia.

Maybe we can continue to collaborate on how to get from the future to the now through free market forces.

Tue, 05 Aug 1997
From: Larry Seaquist
Subject: New strategies

Jock, you asked for ideas on proceeding briskly toward the Smart House/SH vision. As Yasmin and I develop some specific proposals, Ii might be useful to understand a bit more of that vision.

From our own applied strategy work on various facets of the challenges of peacebuilding and crisis avoidance, your insight about housing and power makes a lot of sense of course. A few thoughts/queries:

More to follow.
Very best wishes,
Larry Seaquist
Chairman & CEO
The Strategy Group
an independent, international "do tank"

August 04, 1997
From: Charles Platt
Subject: Intelligent Nano Technology

Well, Jock, I'd say it would help if you read some science fiction and/or books on futurism. Speaking as a one-time science-fiction writer and sometime futurist (who has been paid, on rare occasions, to think about the future) I would find it very surprising if any kind of housing were deemed necessary 1,000 years from now.

I would expect that by 50 to 75 years from now, nanotechnology will be capable of fabricating simple structures, including housing, which will be "grown" in much the same way that we currently grow yeast cultures. This, however, is the least of it. By 100 years from now nanotechnology should advance to the point where immortality is attainable (by repairing DNA damage and other symptoms of aging on a cell-by-cell basis). By 150 years from now, at the very latest, we should have artificial intelligence equal to our own, which will quickly become greater than our own.

This represents the "singularity" that mathematician, computer scientist, and award-winning novelist Vernor Vinge first identified 15 years ago as a barrier to predictive extrapolation. Beyond that point, almost all predictions are equally likely (hence the accuracy of the "singularity" metaphor) because we cannot imagine the actions and motives of intelligences greater than our own. Hans Moravec (roboticist at Carnegie-Mellon and author of the brilliant book MIND CHILDREN) believes hyper-intelligent AI entities will displace us and ultimately RECREATE us, down to the subatomic level, for idle nostalgic reasons; Moravec believes that our "reality" may in fact be an artificially constructed recapitulation of the "real" world. See my article about Moravec in Wired magazine, about 2 years ago.

Regardless of how seriously you take this kind of thing, it's certainly clear that downloaded human intelligence should be possible 150 years from now, regardless of whether the structure of the brain is understood. You don't need to know the bit sequence on a floppy in order to make an accurate copy. I have discussed the prospect of downloaded intelligence in my own book, The Silicon Man, first published by Bantam, new edition forthcoming from Wired Books.

Once the virtualization of human intelligence is possible, there is no further need for the physical world, except as source of power and hardware to maintain the virtual people. All sensory inputs will be emulated so that no informorph (my term for an information entity) will know the difference between reality and artificial reality. Remote-linked robot rovers can provide sensory input from the real world if it is deemed necessary.

All in all, by 1,000 years from now I assume the human race will no longer exist in physical form, because the physical form of our species was only developed originally as a way for our DNA to replicate itself more effectively than other species' DNA, and this concept is already an anachronism even now. Thus, housing will seem a very primitive concept; and I can't imagine why anyone would want to think in those terms.

Updated: 11 Sep 97