Responsibility Machines — Challenging Assistants for Challenging Times

Research and development of a set of assistants to save on resources — for when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak
24 May 2022
Concept, Product Design, 3D Modeling & Rendering, Animation, Visual Design, Video Production
SEP 2021 — MAR 2022
Berlin, DE

There is no time to waste, nor water, nor electricity, nor heat. You know that, but you don't understand what it means. Kilowatt-hours, liters per second, and kilojoules are just foreign words. Do you *need* to understand them to take action? No. Not with a set of perfectly capable AIs to monitor your grid. Now go and close the windows, or your heat assistant will teach you a lesson. 

Artificial Authority for the Greater Good 

Respon­si­bil­i­ty Machines is a research and devel­op­ment project look­ing into ener­gy and resource mon­i­tor­ing solu­tions for homes. As we tran­si­tion toward weath­er-depen­dent ener­gy mod­els and get ready to face increas­ing­ly fre­quent water scarci­ty, we must lis­ten to the grid and opti­mise our con­sump­tion accord­ing­ly. At an indi­vid­ual scale, this real­i­ty can be coun­ter­in­tu­itive and dif­fi­cult to assess.

With this in mind, Respon­si­bil­i­ty Machines presents a set of three assis­tants that act like organs for the home — respec­tive­ly man­ag­ing water, heat, and elec­tric­i­ty. Depart­ing from the clas­sic yet cryp­tic ener­gy meters of today, and pick­ing up where 'smart' meter­ing sys­tems left off, the assis­tants trans­late abstract units into relat­able expe­ri­ences. As a whole, the sys­tem invites its user to look at their habi­tat as if it were a big crea­ture they need to nur­ture. It seeks this way to demys­ti­fy their under­stand­ing of resource con­sump­tion with an approach­able design pro­pos­al. Here, peo­ple become part of a liv­ing sys­tem: its actors, con­sumers, and guardians. 

Under­neath this veneer lies a thought exper­i­ment: if as indi­vid­u­als we can't han­dle the com­plex nature of our con­sump­tion, wouldn't it be eas­i­er to del­e­gate it to a high­er, more capa­ble sys­tem? A sys­tem that can not only inform us, but also coach us, help us adopt new behav­ioral pat­terns, or even rep­ri­mand us when we do wrong? With this, Respon­si­bil­i­ty Machines offers a future where con­sumer prod­ucts are designed to gain con­trol over our short­com­ings: do we want for arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence to become arti­fi­cial authority?

"The average consumer knows little about how electricity is generated, distributed, and consumed, the impact of using it, or how to maximize efficiency and cost savings."

2016 Report from the US Dep. of Ener­gy on Advanced Meter­ing Infrastructures

System Setup

You unpack the machines and read the notice. "Think of your home as a body: one that aches, leaks, ages, and must be kept in shape. Pipes and cables run through it like veins. If it los­es too much heat, it can catch a cold or even devel­op a fever. You must take good care of it." You know all that, but you tend to be too lazy or for­get — or just not real­ly know what you're doing. This is why you bought the assistants. 

You tack the arti­fi­cial organs to cables and pipes and let them mon­i­tor your con­sump­tion. They'll tell you how to behave so you can improve it. They can be pret­ty blunt and chal­leng­ing, but it's a com­mit­ment you're will­ing to make. 


Using Non-Intru­sive Load Mon­i­tor­ing and infrared sen­sors, the arti­fi­cial organs reg­is­ter the loca­tion and unique pulse of each appli­ance, tap, and radi­a­tor. They infer pat­terns from dai­ly usage, and scan the home for heat bub­bles and cold drafts.

This is all tech­ni­cal mum­bo jum­bo, but you got the main idea. The devices are all installed and run­ning already, and you know they've start­ed learn­ing. You had to intro­duce the few appli­ances that weren't auto­mat­i­cal­ly detect­ed. It took the elec­tric­i­ty assis­tant a good minute to detect the sig­na­ture of the off-brand microwave, but now it's done: no mat­ter which set­ting you use, it's recognised.

You can't say you didn't feel sil­ly show­ing the whole flat to a piece of elec­tron­ics. But the heat assis­tant did a good job. You had no idea there were so many pipes in the walls. The fun thing is, you can tell which of your neigh­bours keep the radi­a­tors on dur­ing the day.

Human-Centered Units

Rather than num­bers, the sys­tem favors visu­al cues. The elec­tric­i­ty assis­tant asks you to do a hand ges­ture, so you can expe­ri­ence a real Watt-sec­ond. The water assis­tant uses the liter as a relat­able unit — you know what a liter is. All this lets you fine-tune your under­stand­ing of resources used in the home. To think that the ener­gy you spend doing this ges­ture is just a crumb of what your house uses every sec­ond. Just a day's worth of elec­tric­i­ty for your home is the same as you doing this ges­ture, non-stop, for 3 years. You look at your hand and try to imag­ine how that would feel.

Difficulty Settings

"The Respon­si­bil­i­ty Machines are here to help you. They will show ways to eas­i­ly opti­mise your con­sump­tion and, if you want, they'll set up a cus­tom train­ing rou­tine for you."

You check the app for struc­tur­al changes. Mov­ing the couch away from the win­dows: check. Chang­ing the water boil­er is a 'maybe lat­er.' Replac­ing that age­ing boil­er was easy-peasy, the sys­tem sug­gest­ed ener­gy-effi­cient alternatives.

Now time to take a deep look at your habits. How much are you will­ing to change them? You decide that turn­ing the tap off when soap­ing up is where you draw the line. You like hav­ing warm water fall on your shoul­ders as you scrub your feet.

Difficulty Settings — 'Hard Mode'

For those will­ing to test their lim­its, the pro­gram offers a hard mode. 'What does it look like?', you won­der as you unlock the fea­ture. The sim­u­la­tion shows how you could live a heater­less life by stack­ing all fur­ni­ture into an insu­lat­ing fortress — it will keep your bed shield­ed from the cold. This could be fun, you think. Option two: get rid of the sink. The amount of untouched water that escapes is heart­break­ing. Now, if it is poured, you must drink it.

This isn't some­thing for you. But one day, who knows? Maybe it will feel more acces­si­ble as you train. For now, you keep it at a low­er setting.

The Respon­si­bil­i­ty Machines have the ambi­tion of becom­ing a col­lec­tive adven­ture, and so they con­nect you with oth­er homes in your build­ing. You tap 'accept' and check the noti­fi­ca­tions as they pop up. Your neigh­bours from the first floor have invit­ed you to join their 'dou­ble sweater chal­lenge', so you grab your warmest, fluffi­est jumper and turn all heaters off. Let them see who can hold it the longest!

What else does the sys­tem do? Well. It's the voice of your home, isn't it? It knows when something's not quite right, and it brings it to your atten­tion. Replace a leaky appli­ance, a defec­tive bulb, before you find your­self fac­ing struc­tur­al dam­age. It's only a mat­ter of time before they make it manda­to­ry, just like the smoke detec­tors the hous­ing com­pa­ny installed in your flat last year.

Fluctuating Futures of the Grid 

There are sun­ny days, and there are rainy days. Nature is in flux, as are the amounts of ener­gy and water avail­able for con­sump­tion. The prices go up and down like a roller coast­er — soar­ing when pro­duc­tion beats demand, dip­ping oth­er­wise. Some­times they even dive into the neg­a­tives when there's so much extra elec­tric­i­ty avail­able. Not using it could dam­age the grid. You've been told all this, but read­ing the future real­ly isn't your thing. 

The Respon­si­bil­i­ty Machines will teach you to devel­op your intu­ition and use it to your advan­tage. They know it didn't rain much last win­ter, so you should make every drop count. It knows the upcom­ing storm means free pow­er tomor­row. It knows the best time for heat­ing, and the best time for open­ing win­dows. Soon, you will know too, but for now you must com­plete your train­ing. Just do what the machines say.

"Electricity demand typically rises sharply after major events or following the climax of a popular tv programme when a large number of viewers collectively return to everyday business, including power-consuming habits such as switching on lights, computers — or the kettle.

The grid operator needs to forecast demand and supply as precisely as it can to prevent blackouts, which can result from sudden surges placing a big strain on the electricity network."

'Eng­land brews up suf­fi­cient pow­er for World Cup tea-time surge'
Karolin Schaps, Reuters 2014