Friday, May 11, 2012

The House that Sang

The only thing worse than coffee breath was cigarette and coffee breath. Johan exhaled slowly through his nose as Mister Banks read over his shoulder. Banks still held the coffee cup in his clammy hand Johan shook at the front door. He took regular slurps as he watched Johan work, leaving only to run to the kitchen and refill. It wasn't right that he had to make house calls, Johan thought, he was a hardware guy, and this was looking like a software problem.

"Mister Banks," Johan said, "There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with the system."

"Fred, please," Mister Banks said.

He said it like he was a regular person, and not someone who had spent the equivalent of five Johan-years' salary on a system to outfit a mansion. Someone who could afford to make each room in the house look like it was from a magazine or catalog. Someone who had sensors built into each room's furniture, carpeting, lighting, and air registers; all feeding into a computer powerful enough to oversee a factory. Someone who had enough clout to have the VP of sales march an R&D engineer out for a personal service call. Couldn't Johan just troubleshoot the problem from the office? Absolutely not. Not for a customer like Mister Banks.

"I would love to, Mister Banks, but my company demands a certain level of formality." Johan said. I hope it does not inconvenience you."

Mister Bank's puffy eyes drooped. "I guess it's all right, it's just that you talk like her."

Banks nodded at the smooth dark square built into the wall. Geometric shapes in red, blue, and green displayed the maintenance information Johan had called up.

"We are aware of the issue, and working on a solution," Johan said. He chose not to add working on the solution meant a line item at the bottom of someone's five-year to-do list .

"If you like, I could change your home's voice to Robert's," Johan said. Robert being the male counterpart to the system's current voice option, Melissa.

"No. I tried it already, and it made things worse," Banks said.

"If you could be a bit more specific about your house's malfunction, it would help," Johan said.

Banks rubbed at the back of his neck. The house speakers began playing a song that Johan couldn't quite place. Evidently, Mister Banks enjoyed easy listening. Banks closed his eyes and held his breath as his body went rigid. His hand formed a command gesture and the music stopped.

"Sorry," Banks said, "I didn't mean for that to happen." He leaned in with his coffee breath. "Is that normal?"

Johan breathed out through his nose, fighting the urge to gag. Did the company's regular service techs have to deal with this too?

"Your house might have made an association between your body movements and the sound system," Johan said. "I can reset that if you like."

"That'd be great," Banks said. "And then you can look into the other thing."

"The other thing?" Johan said.

Mister Banks nodded, and slurped at his cup.

"I'm having problems sleeping," he said.

"In what way?" Johan said. He tapped an icon labeled "Sleep" on the wall screen, calling up lines of text detailing the bedroom functions.

Mister Banks shrugged and blew out a long breath, wafting sour coffee and powdered creamer odors.

"Is there a problem with the bedroom functions?" Johan asked.

"No, it automatically dims the lights when I get in bed, adjusts the firmness when I roll over, keeps the temperature perfect, just like it's supposed to."

"But you cannot sleep?"


"Are you suffering from some medical condition perhaps that is not in our records?"

"No, I've been able to sleep a little bit at other places."

"Is it better sleeping on the sofa? The recliner perhaps?"

"No, you don't understand, I can't sleep in the house at all."

"I'm sure I don't understand, Mister Banks. Is the house not performing up to expected standards?"

Mister Banks' hand shook as he took a long drink from his coffee.

"No, no, no. Anything but. When I sit in my favorite chair and merely look at the remote, the TV comes on and the lights dim. If my back begins to ache, the chair reclines and turns on the massage function. "

Banks began pacing.

"When I walk through the house, the lights turn on automatically before me and turn off behind me. When I get ready for a shower, the water's already running and at temperature by the time I walk in the bathroom. Everything was just as advertised once the house learned how to interpret the sensors."

Somewhere in the bowels of the house, the central fan hummed to life. Mister Banks flinched.

"Would it be fair to say," Johan said, "you're suffering from a type of future shock, or you think your house will cause you harm in some way perhaps?"

"No, it's not that. I've been living there for over a year now, and it's been fine. More than fine, actually up until three weeks ago."

"Three weeks?" Johan said. He began pulling up the records on the screen.

"That was when I first noticed it."

"A malfunction?"

"No, more like a… I don't know. I think it all started with the music."

"What music?"

Air currents from the floor register carried the coffee smells away and replaced them with leather and vanilla.

"Normally I like a mix of country, adult contemporary, and Springsteen. I had my custom stations set up just right. But lately, the house has been adjusting the mixes."

"Adjusting? How?"

"Well, it was hardly noticeable at first. Songs came on that I wouldn't have expected."

"Unwelcome songs?"

"No, not actually. They rather fit my mood."

"Well, that's the adaptive algorithms at work then."

"I don't know. It wasn't long after I noticed the songs changing that I noticed the other things."

"Such as?"

"Well, the lighting's been different. Brighter than I would expect in the mornings, dimmer in the evenings, a more gradual transition in the lights as I move about the house."

"All within operating parameters," Johan said, reading the diagnostic log.

"Then my DVR started recording shows for me way outside my normal tastes."

"You didn't like the new shows?"

"No, I did. And I was so comfortable in my chair that I didn't feel like changing the channel or watching anything else."

"It sounds like the house is performing as expected."

"That's what I said."

"So what's the problem?"

Mister Banks licked his lips, and looked away. Johan kept his eyes fixed on his client as the silence stretched out. The house began playing a bossa nova. Banks glared at the speakers.

"I think my house feels sorry for me, and is trying to cheer me up," he said.

"I believe I don't understand you, sir," Johan said.

"My house. It pities me. I can't take it."

"It has no feelings itself, no empathy. Just a program."

"Whether it does or not, the effect is the same. When I feel rotten, it sings to me, tries to brighten my day. "

"It can't sing."

"It can select from a playlist, can't it? Find itself the world's top ten happiest songs? Gauge my reaction and adjust? It pities me."

Johan wondered if he could expense a drink; he was going to need one later. He decided he would send the expense report directly to the VP of Sales.

Johan said, "We could turn that particular aspect of its algorithms off, I suppose. It would be a simple matter."

"I already tried that. Shut the whole thing down. It made it worse."

"How so?"

"Instead of feeling blue with a house trying to cheer me up, I was alone with nothing. It was like the house was giving me the silent treatment."

"So you left?"

"Yes, to a hotel. There I could sleep a little, knowing that nothing in the room was watching me, analyzing me."

"Why didn't you just shut the house computer off? It couldn't watch you then."

"It's not the same thing. It would be like trying to sleep with a corpse staring at me."

Two drinks, Johan decided.

"Would you like the system removed?" Johan asked.

"Maybe. I've thought about it. The hotel is wearing on me too. Hotel sleep comes an hour at a time. There are noises, strange smells, the mattresses are hard. And then there's the feeling that the building is just soulless. Nothing in there cares for me. Why, I could die in that room and the building wouldn't care. It would let me rot in bed until the cleaning lady comes in and calls the cops. If I died at home, would the house call the police?"

"If your biometrics fall within certain patterns, it calls an ambulance automatically."

"See, the house cares for me."

"It's just software. It's not really intelligent."

"Dogs aren't intelligent, are they? But if you're not feeling well, they know it. They can sense it."

"Has your dog been acting up as well?"

"I don't have a dog, I have a goldfish."

"Oh." Johan tried a different approach. "Okay, why should the house pity you? Maybe it's truly concerned."

"Because it just tries things at random. It doesn't really care if I want help or not. It automatically assumes there's something wrong with me."

Banks began pacing the floor again.

"It's superior, even if it doesn’t know it. It doesn’t have to go out there every day and face life. It just needs to sit and perform whatever it is you tell it to do. It will withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, market downturns, divorce, and never have to worry. It will be here long after I'm gone."

Johan , tapped a fingernail against his teeth. The VP of Sales would certainly blame him if Banks decided to remove the whole system. Johan didn't have the programming skills to adapt the system to Banks. If only he could adapt Banks to the program. An idea came to him.

"Rather than thinking it is superior, Mister Banks, I would submit that it is inferior. It knows very little about the world, only interacting through its very rudimentary sensors and simple decision-making ability. Maybe you should think of the house as a child, trying to please its parent. It doesn't know what's wrong exactly, but is trying its best to fix the problem. Rather than resenting the house, perhaps you just need a father's patience. The house will adapt; it can learn but it has a limited vocabulary for understanding you. It will take time."

Mister Banks looked around. His gaze rested on the blinking screen.

"I'm not sure."

"Isn't it better to be needed than pitied?"

"I'm not much of a father."

"If you make a mistake, we can always re-load the initial program and start over."

"I guess," Banks said. He gave a wan smile. "Though I would hate to have to start over after all the things I've taught it so far."

Johan inclined his head. "As you say, Mister Banks."

Johan left the sound of sappy love songs and Mister Bank's voice thundering 'No, no, no, like this!' behind him. He wished the company wouldn't send him out on calls like this. He would much rather work on hardware, not software.

Photo: House of hospitality by Jon Sullivan

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