Robots Pretending to be Humans Lived in These Houses for Six Years

By Sarah Zhang on at

The inhabitants of three houses on a street in Knoxville, Tennessee, would have seemed perfectly average from the outside. Every morning, the showers came on. Every night, the lights and the TV. But there were never any humans living here—only robots pretending to act them.

The robot home invasion, described in a blog post over at Popular Science, actually has a perfectly reasonable explanation. Six years ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority outfitted three houses to different levels of energy efficiency. But then how do you compare directly these houses with one another? Actual human inhabitants might vary in the length of their showers or their forgetfulness in turning off lights. The solution, naturally, was robots programmed to be perfectly average.

Robots Pretending to Be Humans Lived in These Houses for Six Years

So the robots moved in. There were your Human Body Emulation Systems, which slowly leaked water and heat to account for our sweating, breathing biological bodies. (They were actually just rigged trash cans full of water.) Robotic arms turned on and off lights, televisions, kitchen appliances, and taps at the same time in every house. The fridge, for example, opened everyday at 3pm, mimicking hungry kids looking for a snack after school. Four hundred sensors all over the houses tracked every bit of energy usage.

Popular Science relays a particularly insane detail about the houses' driers:

[Since] no robot is capable of reliably transferring clothes from washers to dryers, a matching volume of towels were left in all of the machines, with a mister installed in the dryers, that would add the appropriate amount of moisture before each cycle began.

The six-year experiment ended in October, and there actually was a big difference in energy efficiency: the control house, outfitted to be like the typical Tennessee home, had a utility bill four times that of the most energy-efficient house. [Popular Science]

Top left image: Human Body Emulation System. Top right: Refrigerator with robotic arms. All images via Tennessee Valley Authority