It doesn’t take much to be considered smart if you’re a building. Add some lights that turn themselves off when nobody is around or install an “intelligent” air conditioning system to regulate the ambient temperature and you’re well on your way. But compared to the living buildings proposed by Akira Mita, today’s smart buildings are the architectural equivalent of single-celled organisms.
Mita is an engineer, not an architect, and it shows in both the sophistication of his designs and the scale of his ambition. Using swarms of robotic sensors that “chase” a structure's human occupants, he wants buildings to understand everything about us, down to our emotional state. These robot sensors will learn from their mistakes, self-regulate using digital “hormones”, and record information over the course of years, building up a record of experiences to be used as “DNA” to program future versions of themselves, or even other buildings.
"Living organisms give birth to the next generation, and have immunity to viruses such as influenza," says Mita in a video promoting his work. "Our idea was that we wanted to give architecture this kind of biological response capability."
Mita's vision of buildings that know more about us than we know about ourselves is enabled by a fundamental re-think of how "smart" buildings should be constructed. In conventional smart homes, arrays of sensors and control systems are built into the walls – for example, sensors that detect whether or not anyone is in a room turn on and off lights or control the ambient temperature. The problem with systems like these is that they are obsolete as soon as they are embedded into a structure, and replacing them in the future could be costly or impossible.
Mita's solution is to replace all those sensor networks with something like an iPhone on wheels. Early prototypes, called the "e-bio", are about as big as the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners. They're equipped with a pair of bat-like ears that can determine the precise location of sounds. They also have an "eye" that sweeps a laser beam around the robot, allowing it build a complete, three-dimensional picture of its surroundings ten times a second.
Like our phones, these mobile, independent "e-bio" sensors can be upgraded with new technology as it becomes available, and are easily replaced if they fail. In other words, they're robust in all the ways that traditional home sensor networks aren't.
Another unconventional dimension of Mita's approach is his replacement of a whole variety of sensors with humans themselves. In contrast to a home automation system that strives to maintain a particular temperature set-point, Mita's team is concentrating on making his robots hyper-attuned to signals given off by the human beings in a building.
Take the body language or words we use to express the discomfort we feel with the temperature in a building. In cases like this, the attendant robots would communicate via a "hormonal" signal. In our body, hormones have the power to change how our entire nervous system operates, and over an extended period of time. When Mita’s fire off a hormonal signal, it’s more than a conventional communication – it’s like an override that changes how the entire network behaves. In the case of temperature, the network shifts into a state in which it prioritises the climate of a room. In this way, control over temperature, humidity, fans and whatever other climate control measures are present is automatic and invisible to the building’s occupants.
The more of these robots we have in our homes, the more intelligent they could be. Picture a carpet of cockroach-like insectoid sensors on your living room floor but, hopefully, less creepy. Borrowing ideas from "swarm robotics" – the study of robots that make decisions in the same distributed way that ants and other insects do – Mita wants his robots to make consensus decisions about how to alter a building's environment.