Last Monday, I wrote a note here about the concerns expressed at a scientific conference, that new technology might enable us to build machines that are smarter than we are. One can conceive that this might well cause some problems: as my grandfather was fond of saying, the first requirement for training a dog is that you have to be smarter than the dog. Sometimes I have wondered, though, whether the greater danger is that machines will get smarter, or that people will get dumber.
An article about s specific new technology, in Saturday’s New York Times, made me think of the question again, from both perspectives. It described a new generation of plumbing fixtures — specifically, shower controls — that replace the traditional handles and valves with a digital electronic control panel:
With the RainBrain shower from Hansgrohe, the mix of hot and cold water, its volume and flow, and even music from a favorite MP3 playlist can be retrieved by tapping a small screen, said Nicolas Grohe, director of marketing and product development for the American branch of the company in Alpharetta, Ga.
This is just one of a range of systems offered by Hansgrohe and Moen. Some of the systems can control multiple shower heads, and turn them on and off in a rhythmic pattern. Some allow you to set a program of changing water temperature during the shower — starting out hot and cooling down, for example. Some even have remote controls. (Why one would want a remote control is a question I can’t answer, although there is obviously considerable mischief potential.)
These systems are not cheap: the least-expensive version mentioned in the article goes for $1,200 (not including remote control), while the RainBrain system mentioned costs $4,500. I have trouble imagining that these devices could provide any benefit that would be worth the money. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve never found adjusting the temperature of the shower to be a particularly challenging exercise. (The electronic controls can do nothing to alleviate the one thing that can make this really difficult: an inadequate supply of hot water.) One of the systems offers pre-set buttons that can used by different people for “one touch” selection of their favorite settings. I also have trouble imagining anyone so idle that adjusting the shower temperature counts as a significant effort.
As the article mentions, there is of course one disadvantage these devices have, compared to traditional taps: they won’t work without electricity. I suppose we may see specialized uninterruptible power supplies offered to alleviate this hardship. As my friend Phil would say, it’s the height of something or other.