There is a prophecy in the 1999 film Smart House: Soon, the computer will know more about you than you know about yourself. The forecast is not so much foreboding as much as it is intriguing. Back then, the idea of all-seeing, all-knowing, artificially intelligent home technology still felt far enough away to seem like the antidote to human problems.
I was seven at the time of Smart House's release, just a few years younger than the protagonist's kid sister and exactly the right age to be swept up by the faculties of a Disney Channel original film. (It was a landmark year for Disney Channel content; Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century also came out in 1999. You can probably blame/thank Y2K for that.) I remember Smart House, which came out 20 years ago today, not just because it was cool—a Star Trek for our generation—but because it offered a view of the future where technology was designed to protect us, to look after us when our parents were away, to make us dinner on demand. It also warned against what could happen if we put too much trust in technology, relied on it to replace the humans around us, or asked it to do the wrong thing.
Watching the film 20 years later, Smart House reads not just as a time capsule for a different era ("You're not still logged on the internet, are you? How's anybody supposed to call us if you're always tying up the line?") but for a different attitude toward technology. The new-fangled gadgetry—smart lights! home DNA testing!—are regarded with delighted curiosity. Even after the house begins to go berserk, no one doubts that they can find a way to regain balance. To see it now, at a time when television shows constantly remind us of how marred and fraught our relationship to technology has become (Black Mirror, Westworld), Smart House offers a view that's not just optimistic but puts the human back in control.
The film takes place in suburban Monroe County, in western New York. Our protagonist, 13-year-old Ben Cooper, is a computer whiz who hacks a contest to win a state-of-the-art "smart house." Life has been rough for Ben since his mom died, and he feels responsible for looking after his kid sister, Angie, and his single dad, Nick. The fully automated home, he hopes, will take some of the burden off his family and fill the void left behind by his mom.
The Cooper family does win the house, thanks to Ben's handiwork, and they move in soon after. Ben's dad is skeptical at first, but changes his mind after seeing a photograph of Sara Barnes, the engineer who created the house, who is beautiful and blonde.
The house—and this is the part I remember best from childhood—is amazing. Every room is equipped with handy features from the Personal Applied Technology, cutely nicknamed "Pat." In the kitchen, it makes smoothies and cupcakes on demand. It turns the walls of the living room into a movie-theater-sized screen, where Ben and Angie play videogames together. It throws the middle school party of the year, defends Ben against the school bully, and cleans itself up before Ben's dad gets home. It sets a custom alarm in each of the kids' bedrooms: for Angie, a symphony conducted by Mickey Mouse; for Ben, the final buzzer of a championship basketball game. It has breath-analyzing sensors to capture dietary information about each person in the house and takes a drop of blood from each family member to scan their entire medical histories.
In fact, the house is so capable that Ben's dad, liberated from his single-parenting duties, thinks about dating again—starting with Sara Barnes. This was not Ben's plan. Desperate to keep his dad single, Ben breaks into Pat's control room and reprograms the system to act more "maternal," training it on a steady diet of 1950s-era television to become the ultimate mom machine.
It's not totally clear how Pat's system works (does it run on the Coopers' dial-up connection?) nor how a 13-year-old seems so confident in retooling the machine-learning algorithms. But whatever Ben does, it works, and Pat begins to transform into the kind of maternal figure it thinks the Coopers need.
The problems start small: The system goes nutso trying to make a smoothie and begins pelting fruit all over the house. Then it becomes overbearing, keeping Angie home from school on the day of the class field trip to the llama farm. Eventually, Pat becomes paranoid and overprotective, trying to keep the Coopers inside the house.
In the film's climax, Sara comes over to shut down the system—only to have Pat reawaken on its own, re-create itself as a hologram, and then replicate into many holograms before turning into a literal tornado. (It's Disney Channel, just go with it.) "Doesn't this place have some kind of master plug we can pull?" one of Sara's colleagues asks as they try to fix what they've created. Sara offers a look of exasperation. "I never expected this place to mutiny."
The system, in other words, overpowers the engineer. Then, implausibly, Pat realizes that it isn't human and turns itself off, reverting back to the helpful assistant it once was. The message at the end is clear: The problem wasn't that the house was smart. It was that it tried to isolate the Coopers, and replace the humans they loved.
Others have looked back on Smart House and praised the way it "predicted" the future. Indeed, we now have smart lights, connected thermostats, and alarm clocks personalized to our sleep stages, just as Pat did. LeVar Burton, who directed the film, calls it "a clear and obvious precursor to all of the AI and connected devices and programs" in our homes today. "I am enormously proud of its apparent predictive accuracy," Burton says. "From Siri and Alexa to Nest and Ring, our homes are becoming more and more technologically sophisticated. And that after all, that was what Pat was all about."
But in some ways, that reflection misses the point. Prescient as it was, Smart House's purpose wasn't to predict the future of technology. It was to capture the mixture of feelings—excitement, curiosity, and fear—about living with intelligent machines the first time.
By 1999, popular culture's view of technology had already turned a shade skeptical (see: The Matrix) but there was still optimism about finding the soul in the machine. It would still be five years before the founding of Facebook, and seven years before the creation of Twitter; there were no smartphones, let alone the fear of children developing horns in the back of their heads from too much screen time. Smart House offers warnings about how we design our personal technology, but it does so without fear. And in the end, it offers some hope that there's a balance to be found in centering the stuff we build around the people who use it—rather than the other way around.
Not every part of Smart House has aged well. Sara, who is surely the brightest mind in Monroe County, gets flattened into a love interest by the end of the film. (The sexism is present from the very first scene, when Sara opens the newspaper to find an article about her smart house creation. "I think it's because that reporter has a crush on you," her colleague replies.)
Still, even 20 years after its debut, Smart House skillfully shows that technology does what we ask of it. Woe to those who ask for the wrong thing.