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“What if the intelligent matter of our surroundings could understand us, give us feedback and communicate with us? What if the walls surrounding us were not only supporting our roofs, but had increased functionality? What if each brick, or building block, was a self-powered, decentralised computing entity that would comprise a part of an emerging, large-scale parallel computation? Then our smart buildings would be transformed to intelligent, computing, cerebral organisations that we could not only live in but also interact in a holistic cybernetic way.

“We present ideas aimed at bringing revolutionary changes on architectures and buildings of tomorrow by radically advancing the technology for the building material concrete and hence building components,” begins a fascinating research paper by a pan-European academic collective, published November 19th 2018.

The research, led by Andrew Adamatzky, brings together experts from Poland, Sweden, Greece, and Germany, to put forward a boldly futuristic idea and explains how it may be possible with a combination of modern technologies. While its present feasibility can be called into question somewhat, the unprecedented ubiquity of connectivity, intelligence and sensing in the urban landscape they describe shows what might be possible as these various technologies mature.

“We propose that by using nanotechnology we could embed computation and sensing directly into the material used for construction. Intelligent concrete blocks and panels advanced with stimuli-responsive smart paints are the core of the proposed architecture,” the paper reads. “The photo-responsive paint would sense the buildings internal and external environment while the nano-material concrete composite material would be capable of sensing the building environment and implement massive-parallel information processing resulting in distributed decision making.”

Intelligent concrete, stimuli-responsive panels, and smart paint – three high-tech layers that could surround us almost all the time, within the indoor environment at least. Three materials that could combine to create our walls, floors, and ceilings, making every inch of the building function as a sensor, computer, or interface – individually or as a group.

“The emergent technology sees a building as high-level massiveparallel computer — assembled of computing concrete blocks,” the paper states. “Based on the generic principles of neuromorphic computation and reservoir computing we envisage a single building or an urban quarter to turn into a large-scale sensing substrate. It could behave as a universal computer, collecting and processing environmental information in situ enabling appropriate data fusion.”

Traditional sensing devices increasingly facilitate a wide range of applications that support individual and societal goals. The more sensors we place the more data we produce, the more data we have to feed into artificial intelligence and machine learning systems, the better those systems become at further supporting our goals. The combination of nanotechnology rich smart materials proposed by Adamatzky et al. would fundamentally change sensing from one where key areas are sensed and optimized to one where almost everywhere is incorporated into the network.

The broad range of spatio-temporal effects may include infrastructural and human mobility solutions, energy efficiency, bio-diversity conservation, digital activity tracking, better urban management, even art and social applications. Each would have unprecedented robustness with regard to damage and noise or real-time monitoring of indoor and outdoor environmental changes. It could enable a highly accurate, far-reaching, real-time digital twin not based on advanced predictive ability but based on reality – by turning the building into a digital organism.

“We envisage embedding sensing and associated cognitive abilities directly in a building material and implement computation at several levels of hierarchy. Similar to the human body each millimetre of a concrete block/brick will be able to sense its environment; sensory processing and decision making is done at the level of a single block/brick, more complex problems (shape recognition, learning, predictions) are solved by a cluster of blocks/bricks cooperating in a wall,” the paper explains.

“Thus a building becomes a super-computer at macro-scale while walls will be massive-parallel array processors at a meso-scale and each component of a wall acts as massive-parallel computing device at micro-scale encompassing in-memory computing.”

In other words, the high tech nanoparticles and fibres are mixed into a concrete. Blocks made of this concrete making them capable of reservoir computing – potentially with thousands of inputs and outputs. Each block is also supplied with a microprocessor for input and output interface and communication with neighbouring blocks. Therefore, a wall made of these blocks creates a massively parallel array processor, while each block becomes a massively parallel reservoir computer.

This is a smart building on a completely new level but is it possible is this with our current level of technology? The researchers highlight developments that would be needed in each field:

  • In computer science, we will need to employ a theory of embedded computation with amorphous substrates and to identifying possible advanced sensing applications with amorphous reservoirs and the sensing capacity information of deeply embedded sensing systems in architecture.
  • From nanotechnology and novel construction materials we will need new nano-materials for in-materio computing and data acquisition (sensing), development of composite materials combining mechanical properties of concrete and functional properties of nano-materials, new hybrid, stimuli-responsive materials sensitive to light, electric currents, vibrations, sound and humidity.
  • The field of architecture and building environment will give us new building operations monitoring technology through integrated intelligence in the building material, integration of existing computational design strategies into an intelligent building material.

So while not practically possible right now, the theories behind these new materials are not that far-fetched. They promise a sensory, responsive and intelligent environment that traditional smart building technology cannot achieve. Potentially an intrinsically human-centric and sustainable environment whose “socio-cultural effect,” the researchers say, “will create a cybernetic relationship with our dwellings and cities.” Read the full paper here – https://arxiv.org/pdf/1811.07440.pdf