Safe As Houses


Independent living is the chief goal for many of our children with additional needs. Assisted living is the next best outcome. In the future many people who didn’t have a chance at either of these will be able to achieve them through the use of technology.

The next incarnation of technology (or at least the one after that) will make cities programmable; people, places and things will be connected under a canopy of internet covering public spaces, road and metro systems. Trials for a programmable city have already begun in Bristol, England.

While this technology is in its infancy, I think there is one very small cog in this experiment that is of particular interest to us. At the University of Bristol, Professor Ian Craddock leads a team experimenting with an interlinked house. This house monitors the occupants inside.

Key concerns we have about our young adults living independently are obvious – will they burn the house down?  Will freedom from us make them stray from routines?  Will they hurt themselves and not call for help?  Technology could allay these fears.

A monitor worn on the wrist like a watch is not beyond our imaginations.  If we said it monitored our health, our heart, our exercise patterns and our sleep, we are still within the known.

Computers monitoring temperature controls, humidity levels and motion sensors are a reality.

More than this, computers will soon be able to monitor the humanoid figure inside a house. If someone fell down the stairs and didn’t get up within a reasonable time, the computer would raise the alarm. If someone slipped in the kitchen, got up but didn’t themselves call for assistance even though the computer detected they were still limping an hour later, the computer might call for assistance. In short, computers would keep these houses a safe environment.

If computers called for assistance when something was drastically wrong, we would agree this invasion of privacy was acceptable to keep our children safe in real time. At the moment the research team is using volunteers in a controlled house where they analyse the generated 3D video, and determine what happened. This process is too slow to be practical if done by humans. One day computers will recognise patters in data and determine what should be done next.

This is a worrying step for some. Thoughts of Big Brother State spying arise, or a self-aware Skynet that sends a Terminator to sort out problems. To me The Terminator scenario remains in the world of science fiction – a fanciful made up story. The danger is not the smart technology itself but how we chose to use smart technology. The greater danger, for my mind, is what controls we have over the use of the data by large internet corporations. They know more about us and our lives and movements than our best friends do.

But having said that we freely give these organisations our data already by clicking through on links and by handing over loyalty cards at checkouts. My personal data isn’t that precious, because I’m not about to start a revolution (although I do feel many things need changing). The way things are, if you wish to enjoy the benefits of the technology we already have, you need to let your data out – if you don’t, you can’t fully take part in society.

If I’m not about to start a revolution, my daughter most definitely is not. From a practical point of view (that’s code for independent living) she may have to share her data in order to be safe with independent living. Then, she will be more fulfilled as a person because she would have gone out into the world of grown up independence. She doesn’t want to be stuck at home with me for all of her days. She wants to live; her additional needs don’t change that.

I really do believe future technology will make independent living a reality for many with additional needs who wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve this goal. At its most basic, it is just computers using maths to understand patterns of data to keep our loved ones safe and raise the alarm when they’re not. The technology will one day be cheap. It will also improve the quality of life for an aging population by enabling them to remain in their own homes longer. The practical applications are immense.

I must admit this is the one time I’m a little nervous about hearing about what you think. I’m not a scientist. I’m sure there’s many things I haven’t thought through or understood about this technology, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone pierces my optimistic bubble. But please do. This is a big topic to share on.