Fifty years after The Jetsons promised us a future of robot maids, flying cars, video phones and meals at the push of a button, it seems that reality may actually surpass this futuristic vision. By 2062, the year the animated show was set, advances in artificial intelligence, sensor networks and robotics promise to make the Jetsons's home in Skypad Apartments, and indeed in all of Orbit City, seem quaint by comparison (although flying cars may remain out of reach—especially ones that beat parking problems by folding into a suitcase).

Many of today's homes in the developed world already include a lot of the sensors and networking devices needed to make the smart home a reality, wrote Diane Cook, a professor in Washington State University's School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, in the March 30 issue of the journal Science. The home of the future will harness information from appliances, computers, smart phones and other devices to intuitively meet the needs of its residents. Computer software will play the role of an intelligent agent by perceiving the state of a home's physical environment and residents via sensors, interpreting this information using artificial intelligence, and automatically adjusting heating or cooling, lighting or other resources based on that information.

Cook refers to artificial intelligence and data-mining technologies' ability to seek useful information on resident behavior and the state of the home, and to automatically act on this information, as "ambient intelligence." It will foremost be used to monitor the health of a smart home's inhabitants and to maximize energy efficiency as well as facilitate communication both within the household and with the outside world.

For the past year Cook and her colleagues have been studying the potential of smart-home technology to enable residents at the Horizon House retirement community in Seattle to extend the time they are able to live independently. A year ago the researchers installed dozens of sensors in some residents' apartments to monitor motion, energy use and other conditions. Whereas half of the study participants have mild cognitive problems, the rest are healthy.

The researchers are using data collected to test the activity-recognition algorithms used by their software. "Our clinical psychology collaborators visit the residents every six months to perform a complete cognitive and physical health battery of tests," Cook says. "We are currently designing techniques to identify correlations between behavioral changes and cognitive and physical health changes." She expects to report on initial findings as early as this summer.

Increasingly, smart homes will exist within smart cities that likewise connect citizens via ambient intelligence. Such cities will integrate data from a variety of different sensors placed to record information about factors important to daily life—including air quality, traffic and weather—and then initiate some action if needed. Examples would be adjusting the timing of traffic signals to improve traffic flow or texting alerts to city dwellers warning them to stay indoors due to poor air quality.

Of course for a smart city to work, diverse data sources must be mined in a way that respects the privacy of its citizens. University College Dublin researchers Michael O'Grady and Gregory O'Hare raise the issue of "ambient law" in a related Science article on the emergence of smart cities. "To harness ambient intelligence, users must be prepared to share some knowledge about themselves—and this brings risks," O'Grady says. "Once a technology begins to leave the lab, it is essential that legal, privacy and ethical issues be considered."

Ambient law takes into account that the freedoms protected by a constitutional democracy may be radically altered as ambient intelligence permeates everyday life, O'Grady and O'Hare argue in their article. To avoid the loss of privacy and other freedoms, the legal community must work with computer scientists to establish rules that must be coded into ambient technologies before they become intrusive or damaging to individuals' privacy.

Now, if researchers could only find a way to make George Jetson's nine-hour workweek part of our future, too.