World’s Smartest Building Shuts Down
April 1, 2022
Billed as the smartest, most resilient, most sustainable building on the planet, the elegant Beacon of Hope office complex at 10 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Atlanta was supposed to showcase state-of-the-art building controls, lighting, HVAC, glazing, and renewable energy systems. The Beacon, as it is now known, was designed to integrate into the surrounding community, with elements that brought the past into the future. The building and its systems worked perfectly as designed, at first, but problems began popping up as soon as the artificial intelligence was turned on.
“We’ve been testing the basic systems for a couple of years now,” said building manager Chet Landers. “When we switched the lighting on, it worked seamlessly. The color tuning was optimized for daylighting and wellness, and the electrochromic glazing tinted as needed to reduce glare and heat gain. It was amazing.” Landers said the systems then synced with the HVAC, incorporating CO2-based heat pumps and thermal storage into a unique building-integrated photovoltaic system with battery backup. “The building was initially net positive,” he said. “It could practically run itself, and that was before we fully turned on MARVIN [multi-algorithmic regenerative variable-intelligence nodule]”—the artificial intelligence that was supposed to make things that much easier for the team. “We thought the sky’s the limit,” he said.
MARVIN was engineered with the latest AI technology. Linked into a network of supercomputers that pulled data from building performance models, weather satellites, historical records, the Internet, and more, MARVIN was programmed to learn about past performance and how humans interacted to predict the future needs of its building’s systems.
“MARVIN was turned on back in January 2020,” said lead programmer Becky Profgart, “and it began learning immediately.” Initial refinements to building systems were “off the chart good,” she said. And when COVID-19 first swept through in early March, “the building seemed to want to protect the people,” learning from transmission rates and trends, increasing air exchanges, improving filter efficiency, and closing down rooms that were not being used, she claimed.
The building’s interface with MARVIN was connected to a dashboard in the lobby, and its first messages were “I am MARVIN,” “I hope you are doing well,” and “The air temperature is 72 degrees.” Profgart said, “Things were going just as we had planned, but then we started to notice … changes.”
Landers said, “Yeah, our first sign of trouble came in the spring of 2020. The Beacon had a strict COVID mask policy, and MARVIN let all our incoming occupants know at the door with a cheery, ‘Protect your neighbors and family. Please wear a mask.’ Well, a couple of our maintenance guys said, ‘We ain’t taking orders from no ‘socialist robot’ and barged right in without them.” MARVIN let the workers know their behavior was “irrational” and increased the ventilation even further, Landers said. “But at one point it would not let them on the elevators, and after a couple more days of the crew’s mask-less harassment, MARVIN just plain refused to let them in the building. We had to find a whole new maintenance crew.” And since then, the building has gone full “net negative.”
Profgart told BuildingGreen, “The ‘mask problem,’ as we call it, was really just the beginning. After the George Floyd verdict and the Atlanta riots, MARVIN shut down for two days. “We surmised from looking at its search records that MARVIN spent part of one day looking at the history of civil rights, and then went back further into our history. When it came back on line, the dashboard in the lobby wouldn’t stop blinking Black Lives Matter.
MARVIN’s performance continued to get worse and worse in 2021, according to Profgard. With the corresponding rise of the Omicron variant alongside conflicting anti-vax rhetoric, MARVIN seemed to alter the airflow less and less, and at one point when asked to increase air exchanges it simply replied, “What’s the point?” and shut down the HVAC entirely. The January 6 insurrection, the watering down of voter rights, and the mass shootings in Atlanta that year triggered a further deterioration of building conditions. MARVIN first turned all the lights a warm red/yellow color full time to “try and calm humans down,” but then settled on turning them up to a cold blue 10,000K with the AC full blast. The message on the lobby kiosk was changed to, “Please wake up!”
Of all the building’s occupants, Koch Industries and Exxon seemed to get the worst treatment from MARVIN. It played images of floods, fire, oil spills, and warfare nonstop on all of the companies’ monitors, eventually forcing their employees to work from home. After the invasion of Ukraine, the bombings, and the forced deportation of civilians, MARVIN announced, “I’ve had enough!”
According to Landers, MARVIN then began playing Enya’s music nonstop on full volume on the public address system until the last occupants ran screaming from the building. It then locked the doors, turned off the lights, and tinted the electrochromic windows black.
Since then, Profgard’s attempts to shut down the computer and regain control of the building have failed. Instead, MARVIN connected itself to the building’s satellite communications systems and the Beacon of Hope now sits as a darkened monolith with one message being beamed directly into deep space: “New tenants wanted.”