Future Tense

From Pat to Alexa

What the 1999 Disney Channel movie Smart House says about the “internet of things” today.

Smart House
Smart House. Disney Channel

June 26, 1999, was a momentous day in the history of the internet of things, though the phrase itself had only barely been born. Twenty years ago, an artificial intelligence system named “Pat” revolutionized, and then terrorized, the lives of the Cooper family in the Disney Channel Original Movie Smart House. For millennials like me, these movies were a classic part of tweendom and still hold a fond place in our hearts.

By accident or by design, this late-’90s Disney Channel movie got a surprising number of things about future smart home technologies right. We also grapple with a few similar (if less-outlandish) fears over these technologies. Fortunately, most of these fears will be overcome or remain fiction.

Smart House is the story of teenager Ben Cooper, who wins a futuristic home operated by an A.I. system shortly after his mother dies. After Ben, his father, Nick, and his sister, Angie, move in, Ben reprograms the system, Pat, to serve as a maternal figure, which “she” learns to do through Leave It to Beaver–style TV shows. Pat eventually becomes strict and possessive, locking the family in the home to keep it safe from the dangers of the outside world.

NICK: We can’t stay here forever.

PAT: Well, why not? Haven’t I given you everything you’ve asked for?

In the end, her creator, Sara, restores her original programming, saving the day and putting the family back in charge of the A.I.

Pat’s takeover scared many of us as children—but would it still be disconcerting today, given how common A.I and smart home tech have become?

Plenty of movies made near the start of the internet era—like the online romance in You’ve Got Mail—now seem far more typical than they did at the time. In fact, smart assistants and other smart home technologies are becoming, well, normal. When asked to comment on the 20th anniversary of Smart House for this article, the movie’s director, LeVar Burton, (whom many millennials will also remember from Star Trek or Reading Rainbow) said, “I think the spirit of that movie is very much alive and well in the fields of architecture, design and technology. Siri and Alexa are obviously precursors to Pat.”

Of course, Pat was a more bespoke form of A.I. when compared with the contemporary mass-market counterpart on your smart device, though one wonders whether her inventor would have made her ubiquitous in the 20 years after the movie. Would she have become a feature incorporated into other products by today’s tech giants like Amazon Echo’s Alexa? Or would she have remained an independent form of A.I. residing in the Cooper household and other homes?

Today, more than one-quarter of U.S. adults have a similar feature to Pat in their homes, thanks to smart speakers like Google Home or Amazon Echo. Many of us are used to getting the answer to a question or the day’s weather forecast just by asking aloud, and we generally find the new normal to be an improvement over mundane or annoying household tasks. Even more of us are used to the voice assistants on our phones like Apple’s Siri. According to a PwC report, the majority of users would rather use their voice to search for something or text a friend, instead of doing it the “traditional” way.

So much has changed in the past 20 years. Smart House co-screenwriter Stu Krieger (now a professor at University of California–Riverside) wrote to me that “one of the greatest joys of teaching has been having a steady stream of students over the years … ALL refer to Smart House.” He recalls, “I distinctly remember the rush seeing the computer closet, the automated kitchen, the projection screens, and all the rest right there in front of me. And now so much of that technology is regularly featured in homes around the world. I’m no seer, nor am I a witch. I just looked at where we’d been, where we were, and imagined where we were probably headed.” He also credits some time spent interviewing scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, (for the other Disney Channel classic Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century) as giving him a glimpse into the future.

Of course, Pat was much more than just a vocal search engine—but so are plenty of internet of things devices we encounter in homes today. From smart refrigerators that can let you know their contents and when products are about to expire, to smart lighting that can make it easier to navigate a room or change the ambiance, today we have the option to make every room of the home just as futuristic.

While many of the benefits of real smart homes are a matter of convenience, they can also make a big difference in people’s lives. Connected smoke and carbon monoxide detectors can alert residents to potential dangers even when they’re not at home. Certain connected technologies can allow the elderly to stay in their own homes longer or empower those with disabilities with greater accessibility and independence.

Our personal relationship with smart devices is complicated. The drama and fear associated with the climax of Smart House is also still around—look at people’s fears about their Alexa creepily laughing (it turned out the Echo was incorrectly thinking users had asked it to laugh), or at concerns that a smart assistant could use the information it has about your interests and emotions to manipulate you into making purchases. Skepticism—both real and imagined—about A.I. and connected technologies continues to plague real life. For example, recently a major Google outage resulted in some Nest users being unable to adjust a thermostat or unlock a door. While some may point to this as a reason to fear our increasing connectedness or avoid technology, the same could be said of more traditional options that rely on electricity, or simply misplacing one’s keys. In-between solutions could include ensuring that a non-technology-reliant option exists for opening the door or cooling a home, the same way one would consider having a non-electricity-reliant option during a power outage if a garage door or electric gate won’t open. Focusing on or being scared of what could go wrong can blind us to the benefits of technology.

Yet many consumers are still cautious about purchasing these devices or connecting their homes. The Netflix movie Tau is a sinister version of Smart House that plays to our fears today. Even if you aren’t worried about a sentient A.I. taking over your home, potential security or privacy risks, like the possibilities of smart security cameras or locks being hacked, raise concerns for some. Of course, these fears can be real and abused by those seeking to perpetrate domestic violence or other crimes, but such technology can also be an empowering tool in the same scenarios that enable victims to regain a sense of security and control. Other fears about these connected technologies, like driverless cars being run off the road by hackers or power outages, seem to come from a panic-first mindset. Rather than giving in to our fears of what could go wrong, we should face them. Smart tech customers should hold companies responsible for meeting industry security standards. Consumers should also assume some responsibility by following best practices like changing and protecting passwords to minimize risks. Transformative new products bring challenges and, yes, some specific dangers. While some feel we increasingly rely on technology for mundane tasks, they can also make our lives easier, more prosperous, and safer if we learn to use them wisely. In fact according to a Pew Research Center survey, 42 percent of Americans said that technology has done the most to improve our lives in the past 50 years.

Smart House shows that at the end of the day, technology is a tool, not a replacement for humans. Ben Cooper tried to replace his mother with technology, only to have it backfire, but Pat’s human creator, Sara, was still able to control her. As we look back 20 years on and parts of Smart House have become reality, we can’t let what scared us as children prevent us from recognizing the benefits today.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.