Main image of A Near Future Smart Home Equipped With 1,000 Sensors to Watch Over the Residents at Anytime from Anywhere to Anticipate and Fulfill Their Wishes

A Near Future Smart Home Equipped With 1,000 Sensors to Watch Over the Residents at Anytime from Anywhere to Anticipate and Fulfill Their Wishes

What is the role of a "smart home" in which the system watches over the safety, health, and prosperous life of the residents?

With the advancing digitization of society, there is a growing movement to apply the data generated in daily life to solve various social issues and create new forms of value. Companies and government agencies in many industries and sectors are carrying out initiatives to apply IoT (Internet of Things) systems to collect detailed data from offices, plants, roads, power grids, and other sites that use social infrastructure and utilize big data stored in the cloud with advanced information processing technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI). This trend will soon reach ordinary homes as well. The "smart home" is a near future housing concept that utilizes advanced information processing technologies to improve the efficiency and prosperity of life.

We spoke with Professor Yasuo Tan, Vice-President of the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Manager of the Smart Home Board of the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JEITA), about the ideal vision for the smart home that we should aim for going forward and the information and communications technologies required to make it a reality.

Diversifying smart home functions support everything from maintaining a comfortable space to disaster response

--Professor Tan, in light of the digitization of society, please share with us your current definition of the smart home.

Companies in various industries and sectors ranging from housing companies to household equipment manufacturers, home appliance manufacturers, and home security companies are involved in smart homes. With such a diverse range of participants, there are various definitions of the smart home. However, it can be said that a common aspect of all of these definitions is that they are aiming to realize an "environment that promotes automation whereby the devices and equipment in the house do what the residents desire." An automated system in which the devices and equipment intrusively do things that the residents do not desire cannot be called smart. I think that "smart" refers to a system that accurately senses the living environment and the condition and status of the residents and also collects and considers information that the residents may not be aware of, such as outdoor conditions, to be able to respond in a thoughtful way that anticipates the residents' desires and what may happen in the future.

Image 1 of Professor Yasuo Tan

Generally, human behavioral patterns are such that while we sometimes predict what will happen in the future and deal with it in advance, more often we tend to deal with things after they have happened. The value of a smart home lies in the fact that it can realize a level of living efficiency and prosperity that cannot be achieved by individuals. For example, if the smart home senses that it is going to get hotter later on, it can turn on the air conditioner to cool the environment down now and prevent wasteful power consumption when the residents feel hot and rapidly cool the house down. These are the kinds of usage scenarios that are envisioned. By adding smart functions to homes, we will become able to curtail peak power usage while maintaining comfort.

--So there is a possibility that residents will be able to conserve electricity while maintaining comfort without even being aware of it.

Another way to use smart homes is to provide the appropriate evacuation guidance according to the condition and situation of each individual resident when a disaster such as an earthquake or typhoon occurs. In Tsukuba City, we demonstrated a system that uses IoT home appliances equipped with speech functions to provide individual evacuation guidance during an emergency. If we can make the smart home a reality, we can identify the location of each individual resident and communicate the optimal course of action in an emergency by saying, "flee to the second floor" or "evacuate to such and such elementary school." Because such instructions can be managed by government agencies, etc., it would be possible to optimize the evacuation behavior for the entire town so that everyone can smoothly evacuate.

Image of a smart home demonstration
Figure 1 Illustration of a smart home demonstration

Importance of establishing technologies that discreetly provide close support to residents

--So the role of a smart home is to always place the residents at the center and discreetly support their lives from close by. In some ways, that feels like the attentiveness of "hospitality."

Yes, that is correct. The smart home definition that I discussed is based on a sense of values and perspectives that are not included in current home appliances and household equipment.

When it comes to smart homes, many people probably think of home systems that use smart speakers to automatically execute the intentions expressed by the residents. However, the vision of the smart home that we believe should be realized and the current home systems centered on smart speakers fundamentally differ in terms of the approach to providing services. Smart speakers are a mechanism by which people who are skilled at using them can actively communicate what they want and have it respond in an efficient manner. These are systems that conform to the mode of conventional services that respond appropriately based on the expression of intention on the service receiving side. Naturally, such systems certainly do have value, and they are convenient if you can master how to use them. This is not to deny their significance.

On the other hand, future smart home services will ensure that those who have difficulty expressing their intentions such as newborn babies and elderly persons who cannot operate new machines, etc. are not left behind. This is because the service providers are always watching over the movements of the recipients, staying close to them, and sensing their wishes to discreetly provide support. To make the smart home a reality, I think that we need to make something that matches this new sense of values, and I believe that there are many people not only in Japan but throughout the world who desire services based on these values.

--However, wouldn't developing a smart home with a concept that differs from current home appliances, etc. entail substantial risk for the affiliated companies?

Certainly, the differences between the smart home vision that should be realized and the approach to its realization will truly appear as differences in the technology development and standards creation required for system construction and the development guidelines for related products and services, etc. However, regarding smart homes as systems used in residences that are private spaces for individuals, I do not believe that this will become a major problem. This is because the residents have diverse values, lifestyles, and attributes, and there are many people who are unable to be satisfied or achieve the implementation objective with a smart home built under a specific concept.

For example, let's say that we implement an automation system based on smart speakers to provide support for housework and daily living in a house where elderly persons live. Certainly, it can support their daily lives if they can master it, but it is meaningless for elderly persons who cannot operate new machines. It cannot be an effective measure for solving social problems such as the decreasing birth rate and aging population. I think that this situation will likely occur all over the world going forward. The important thing is to provide diversity so that suitable smart home systems can be selected according to a wide variety of purposes of use and resident attributes.

The ideal smart home made feasible by advances in IoT and AI

--It seems that extremely advanced technologies will be needed when it comes time to realize the smart home vision based on the attentiveness of hospitality. I feel that sensing the potential requests of others is the pinnacle of intellectual work and something that is difficult even for humans.

Image 2 of Professor Yasuo Tan

I have been involved in smart home research for many years, and I think that it is now possible to make it a reality due to the advanced evolution of information and communications technologies such as IoT, artificial intelligence (AI), the cloud, etc.

In Japan, efforts to realize home automation that would automate housework and tasks in daily life began in the 1970s. Then, bottom-up home automation led by the manufacturers became a reality as the digitization of home appliances progressed in the 1990s. Around 2000, a home network based on the IEEE 1394 network standard was completed that could run all of the expected applications. However, despite its completion, it did not succeed as a business. This is because the value that it could provide was similar to a remote control in that it would operate according to human instructions. Very few consumers recognized the value of home appliances being networked and were willing to pay a cost that was clearly higher than a remote control.

The Japanese home appliance manufacturers realized that consumers would not recognize the value of implementing advanced technologies unless they made the systems smarter and equipped them with the ability to anticipate and support users in a thoughtful manner. Around that time, the term "Web 2.0" came into use. The concept behind Web 2.0 was to accumulate a massive amount of data in the cloud and extract valuable information from it as "collective intelligence" to predict what would happen in the future and apply that to create value. I thought that if this concept could be implemented, we could build a smart home that anyone would appreciate. At that time, advanced AI and highly convenient cloud systems had not yet appeared, but subsequent technological advances have solidified the foundation to make what we want to achieve possible.

--So now is the very time to make the smart home vision that you are aiming for a reality. It would seem that manifesting the smart home vision that you described would require the creation of a system to collect a massive amount of data from homes and the surrounding environment.

We need a system that enables smart home-based housing to feel things in the same way that the residents in the home are feeling right now. Therefore, it is extremely important to install a large number of diverse sensors inside and outside the home. Because the advanced information processing to figure out what needs to be handled in advance is fundamentally performed in the cloud, it is not necessarily the case that an advanced computer must be installed in each home. However, sensors must be installed on the residents' side. This is because a major prerequisite for responding to residents based on proper judgment is the collection of data with the appropriate volume and quality.

--To realize a smart home that is close to the ideal that you are currently envisioning, what kinds of sensors and roughly how many must be installed in a home?

We set up a demonstration building where we are verifying the functions, effects, and reliability, etc. of new technologies and equipment related to smart homes. That building is equipped with 180 temperature and humidity sensors alone. However, we feel that ideally we need to install around 1,000 different sensors in the average home.

Image of demonstration building
Demonstration building constructed in Ishikawa Science Park where the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology is located
Image of Sensors installed in the demonstration building
Sensors installed in the demonstration building

For example, in order for an information and communication system to provide the same level of care as a mother who watches over a sleeping baby to ventilate the room at the appropriate time or place a towel blanket, it must collect information that is equivalent to the information collected by the five senses of a human. Specifically, it requires cameras to sense the residents' condition and movements in addition to sensors that detect temperature, humidity, and brightness, the opening and closing of doors and windows, changes in the current and voltage of power outlets, and the presence of people. In addition, although it is not currently installed in the demonstration building, the direction of breezes indoors is also an important piece of information. For example, the effective temperature is significantly affected by the flow of air within a room, etc. To maintain a state in which the residents feel comfortable, the system must control the environment by considering diverse forms of information and not simply focus only on the temperature to control the air conditioner.

Summary: aiming for a new relationship between residents and housing

Living conditions change according to the lifestyle habits and lifestyles of the residents. If we look at the inside of a house, we can get a feel for the personality of the residents. Conversely, changes in the layout and equipment in a house also cause the residents' lifestyles to change. The relationship between residents and housing is changing due to changes in the social environment such as the decreasing birth rate and aging population and work style reform. To enable residents to adapt to new social environments, housing will need to provide more support than ever. It can be said that smart homes are able to meet such demands.

In the second half, we ask Professor Tan what kinds of technologies are needed to make the ideal smart home a reality as well as the key considerations for suppliers who are developing and providing technologies at that time.

Yasuo Tan

Vice-President, Professor, Chief Information Officer (CIO), Director of Center for Digitalization Endeavors, Director of Center for Innovative Distance Education and Research, Director of Headquarters for Digital Transformation, and Director of Center for Reskill & Recurrent Education of Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, and Manager of the Smart Home Board of the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JEITA)

Photo provided by: National Institute of Information and Communications Technology

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