Computers are everywhere and have gotten smaller and faster. With easy availability of the Internet, these little and powerful computers grew to form an “Internet of things” collecting, processing and presenting useful information to us.
Today these little computers can now draw on enormous banks of collected online data (big data) and, backed by advances in artificial intelligence, they are quickly transforming into a new form of technology generally called ambient computing (or sometimes ambient intelligence, ubiquitous computing, or pervasive computing).
Ambient computing is not a specific technology, but a pairing of many and varied technologies based on need. It is concept that represents a profound shift in how we get things done with computers and may even ultimately have a long-lasting impact on our culture.
The Invisible Interface
Traditionally our interface with computers has been via a desktop, a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet, or some other device. However, “ambient” computing represents something that surrounds you or is in the air. Ambient computing means the interface is transparent, intuitive and may require little interaction by a user.
Historically, use of any computer has required a cognitive shift by the user to adapt to a computer. Users used to have to learn commands and syntax to interact with a computer. A graphical interface made things easier, but users still need to interact with a mouse and on-screen windows. Touch screens made things even easier by just requiring the use of a finger. Ambient computing seeks to change all of that by making an interface so easy and natural it becomes invisible.
Ambient computing could use any combination of technologies, including voice, speech recognition, haptics, visual cues, gestures, augmented reality, environmental factors, wearable devices, the internet of things, and cloud computing, all tied together with artificial intelligence.
The end result is an amalgam of technologies that seamlessly work together guiding and reacting with the user so easily and invisibly that the user forgets there is an interface. Such an invisible interface would work in the background and constantly monitor, listen and respond to our needs as required and learn to do it better as it works with the user over time. Such technology may even make decisions on our behalf and provide smart suggestions for whatever we are trying to accomplish.
Good examples of sophisticated ambient computing abound in science fiction:
- Hal 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” monitors all operations on a spaceship and intelligently interacts with the crew (unfortunately it murders most of the crew).
- The shipboard computer on the Star Trek series not only takes orders to maneuver a starship, but also controls the environment, replicates food and materials, and intelligently interacts with the crew.
- In the 2015 movie “Her” an intelligent and ambient computer operating system learns and grows while intimately interacting with its owner. The interaction with the computer is so convincing that the owner falls in love with it.
- Tony Stark in the Marvel series “Iron Man” seamlessly interacts with his ambient and intelligent computer Jarvis (or Friday) to build Iron Man suits, solve problems, and save the world.
Unfortunately, these visions of more sophisticated ambient computing do not yet completely exist. The idea of an artificially intelligent and ambient computer remains extremely popular in our imagination, but in reality, such ambient technology relies mainly on the less dramatic and more pragmatic analysis and interpretation of big data with machine learning. Components of ambient computing exist but are only part of a larger ambient and intelligent system to be.
- Voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home not only actively interact with a user, but interact with other devices in the environment, providing a very basic ambient computing environment. Voice assistants are targeted for the home, but increasingly entering non-residential environments (such as bedside for hospital patients) or business environments. Amazon claims there are over 28,000 home devices that work with their device including lights, televisions, thermostats, refrigerators, and keyless home or office entry.
- Self-driving cars are also a great example of a self-contained ambient environment.
As a pervasive and all-encompassing technology, ambient computing is not without some risks and problems.
- Inter-operability — An ambient computing environment will need to be cohesive and cooperative since it will likely incorporate devices and technologies from a variety of vendors. This will mean ambient computing standards will have to be developed so disparate devices can inter-operate effectively.
- Potential Liability — An ambient system that is actively autonomous is very different from today’s passive conventional systems. An ambient computer system will likely be autonomous and will not require human feedback to act. This means the system will be responsible for its actions. Conversely, conventional software is controlled by a user and its output can be directly tied to that user. Who is at fault when an ambient computer causes a problem, the owner, the developer or the manufacturer? There is the possibility of significant liability when an ambient system is allowed to operate autonomously.
- Difficult to Trust — Any relationship is built on trust and users might not be comfortable trusting important work or personal information to an ambient computer. There may need to be some means to assure users since distrust for automated technology can run deep.
- Loss of Privacy — In order to do meaningful work for a user, an ambient computer will need access to private information about that user. This opens up the possibility of privacy issues and how such software will access and use personal or confidential information. Also, there may be resultant privacy concerns over tracking, data ownership and the creation of derivative data from any analytics.
- Detachment from Society — If the privacy and trust issues can be resolved, it is possible that some users may start to solely interact with their ambient systems and communicate far less with real people causing a social detachment from society.
- Loss of Skills — Done right, an ambient computer will make it easier for users to access information and accomplish tasks. However, this might result in users relying too much on such systems and losing important personal or professional skills to navigate and retrieve information or do their work outside that system
- Beware the Active Response — Initially ambient computers will likely only react to a user’s requests. In future iterations, ambient computers will likely become more active and autonomous, making decisions on behalf of the user or a firm. This is the basis of the fear that autonomous artificial intelligence will take over the world, as has been predicted by such luminaries as famed physicist, Stephen Hawking, or businessman, Elon Musk.
Where Is This All Going?
As technology improves and ambient computing is able to interpret more than the meaning of words, it could recognize emotions or mood and interact accordingly. An ambient computing system might always be ready and waiting to tell you what you need to know. It could synchronize with other computers and provide a uniform and unbroken “conversation” as you move from room to room, from home to car to office.
In a few years, ambient computers may be all around us. They may whisper to us, augment our reality through our eyeglasses, all while gauging and reacting to our moods and needs. The idea of sitting in front of a laptop or physically working with a tablet or phone will seem quaint and old fashioned.