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The Synthesist

Smart Meters Get All the Press, but 'Dumb' Meters Need Love, Too
Ready for cyborgian cisterns? Sentient sewer systems? The coming smart-tech revolution promises to marry infrastructure and the Internet.

If your vision of an artificially intelligent future is based on multiple viewings of The Terminator, you may have overlooked the inherent genius of your thermostat. But Skylar Tibbits hasn’t. A researcher in MIT’s department of architecture, Tibbits thinks the little metal coil inside this common household appliance is far more likely to take over the world than any army of self-aware cyborgs.

Tibbits studies how best to harness what he calls “the inherent intelligence of materials.” Much of his research focuses on ways of helping infrastructure and technologies “communicate” with their surroundings, and with one another, in order to assemble and operate themselves—without human input. The thermostat, he believes, offers perfect proof of concept: heat causes the metal coil inside to expand, turning the dial one way; cold causes the metal to contract, turning the dial in the opposite direction. No battery or electronics are needed. “It’s super-passive, super-cheap, and brilliant,” Tibbits says.

This same idea, he maintains, could be used to make our urban infrastructure radically more efficient and sustainable. Tibbits has imagined shape-shifting rainwater-collection systems on rooftops—surfaces that would dimple whenever a storm came in, storing water and releasing it gradually, so as not to overwhelm sewer systems. He has also envisioned pipes that would expand and contract depending on the volume and pressure of the water flowing through them, essentially pumping themselves. Currently, Tibbits is researching 4-D printing, a technology with the potential to pop out parts that self-assemble into consumer products over the fourth D— time. Such self-assembly could run on energy harvested from natural phenomena: heat, moisture, wind, waves, even sound. (Scientists in Colorado have already combined 3-D printing technology with materials known for their “shape memory” to design a tiny, unfolded box that can fold itself when heat and pressure are applied.)

Self-assembling, self-regulating systems that could operate solely on inputs from the environment are a long time, and a lot of money, away from becoming a commercial reality. But scientists and engineers are already working to confer something akin to intelligence onto the myriad “dumb” structures and objects that make up our everyday landscapes by connecting them to one another—and to the Web—in what pithy futurists call the Internet of Things. Experts predict that networks of cooperatively engaged smart objects will become a trillion-dollar market within a few years.

The impact of these smart systems on some of our most vexing environmental problems could be tremendous. Take, for example, what civil engineers refer to as combined sewer overflow. Every year, cities discharge 850 billion gallons of raw sewage into rivers and streams nationwide. Why? When a storm hits, rainwater cascades off impermeable buildings, streets, and sidewalks and into the gutter, quickly overwhelming the capabilities of sewer systems and treatment plants. The rainwater combines with the sewage, and the toxic admixture overflows, untreated, into nearby waterways.

Though many homes and buildings have rain barrels or cisterns for capturing rainwater, too often they are already full when the storm clouds roll in. But Marcus Quigley, an engineer at the consulting firm Geosyntec, says his company has come up with a ready solution. Customers who purchase Geosyntec’s software can wire all of those barrels and cisterns to the Web, where they connect to National Weather Service forecasts. When a big storm is predicted, the tanks expel their water into landscaping elements or send it to a sewage treatment plant in advance, creating room to store a new deluge.

The Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency is the first federal building in the country to feature a Geosyntec “real-time control system,” which coordinates releases from the building’s six 1,000-gallon cisterns. Robert Goo, the EPA official spearheading the project, envisions citywide networks of these smart cisterns “on every high-rise, under parking lots, in parks,” marshaling rainwater for use in irrigation, car washing, toilet flushing, and more.

Once it has been set up, the system can more or less run on its own. “Add information,” Quigley says, “and you end up with a result that’s much more beneficial for the environment, without new investment and new infrastructure.” And without human supervision, either.

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image of Kim Tingley
Kim Tingley is a regular contributor to OnEarth and the New York Times Magazine. She has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and in 2012 received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, given annually to six female writers who demonstrate excellence and promise in the early stages of their careers. MORE STORIES ➔