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Demon Seed: The Original "Oops, Smart Houses Have a Downside..."

Recommendation: Read it! It started the “trapped by a smart house” horror genre and, even better, it is told from the evil AI’s point of view.

E.M. Forester was the first to imagine smart houses and the Internet of Things in his 1909 short story “The Machine Stops.” The title of his story is a spoiler for what happens with the smart house concept. Since then, the narrative has shifted several times from Forester's original “dependence on technology is making us weak.” Next up was “we’re smart enough to build smart houses but dumb enough to have a nuclear war” in Bradbury’s poetic “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950). That was followed by Philip K. Dick's “you have to pay your house to open the door” spoof of rampant commercialism in Ubik, his 1966 more-Christopher-Nolan-Inception-than-Inception book. Then, in 1973, Dean Koontz published Demon Seed and created a fourth smart house narrative: the horror troupe of “your smart house is smart enough to be evil and wants to trap you."

In the delightfully creepy Demon Seed, an AI named Proteus, working out of a university lab computer over the internet (yay academic research!), traps the beautiful ex-wife of its creator inside her high tech smart house. Proteus’ stretch goal is to impregnate her in order to grow a body for itself. Being a physically situated agent limited to a very large and well-decorated house is not enough, so Proteus wants to be able to move around more and be able to have the senses of touch and smell.

And one more plot point: It is wants to have sex with the ex-wife.

The whole smart house IoT genre suddenly got very dark. Very dark. Even Disney in the dreadful family comedy Smart House (1999) really couldn’t dispel the persistent creepy vibe of a future where your refrigerator keeps up with how much milk you are drinking,

Perhaps fortunately- given the growing unease as to how much of a smart house did we really want- the technology to actually make this work kept stumbling. Honeywell had tried in 1963 to market an automated kitchen, where everything was under centralized control and all appliances to be made by Honeywell. That didn’t catch on.

Eventually, the X10 standard was proposed in 1975. It was a distributed solution that would connect appliances and items built by different vendors. The X10 system never caught on because in practice it was too unreliable. It tried to connect the devices via their power lines, which was reasonable since wifi didn’t exist, but power lines are notoriously noisy in terms of signals so the connections didn’t always work.

Finally, 30 years later, the Internet of Things happened and wifi was cheap, easy, and pervasive. Nest was first to market in 2010 with a smart thermostat and the race was on to create smart houses. After eight years, the smart house IoT market is evolving into a hybrid of centralized and distributed control, where apps such as Alexa are becoming a common interface to the individual appliance apps. While consumers aren’t being directly charged by their refrigerator for each transaction al la PDK, dwellers are paying for the IoT fridge and the software to access the features. And if the episode in the 2013 TV series Almost Human about a weaponized and hackable home security system seems far fetched, there are at least two different companies selling inexpensive IoT security cameras that also let you talk to (or yell at) people (or annoying squirrels and possums) lurking outside the house. It can’t be too long before someone connects it to the IoT sprinkler system to splash an offender. Or to something more injurious.

Of course, science fiction missed some details about smart houses. No one, not even the cynical PDK, saw that smart houses would entail the inevitable signing away of privacy rights and data mining of personal habits.

Possibly the biggest difference between the smart house narrative started in 1909 and the reality of current day is that we are unlikely to be trapped in our house because we are never there. Consider that a big selling point for security cameras is to make sure deliveries aren’t stolen because we aren’t home to receive them and for the refrigerator to remind us to pick up more milk as we are running around town.

Let’s hope science fiction got the part about rogue AIs trapping people wrong as well.

As an aside: Koontz revised Demon Seed in 1997 to update the story with newer technology and more polished writing (Demon Seed was one of his first books). Some of the reviewers are outraged at the changes, as if Tolkien had gone back and killed off Frodo in Lord of the Rings. The 1997 version is fine, there’s no need to try to find the 1973 original unless you really want to pay Koontz twice. There was a 1977 horror movie with Julie Christie, which is pretty bad despite Christie’s determined acting. The really scary part about Demon Seed the movie is how movie studios do not “get” the science fiction and horror genres.

- Robin

For a video version of this review, click below...

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