Ambient computing is a concept that is both easy and complex to explain. The easy explanation is that it involves the use of technology without a hands-on approach that requires no manual intervention to interact with a computer or technological resource.
The more complicated explanation is that ambient computing involves humans using back-end technology that is physically present or on our persons and that operates independently using principles such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. In a nutshell, it’s essentially environment-based hands-free computing.
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Ambient computing may seem like a 21st century trend, but it’s actually been around longer than you might think. The “Clapper,” a gadget released in 1984 that allowed you to turn electrical appliances like lamps on and off with a simple clap of your hand, is such a well-known staple that many of us probably remember the catchy jingle. To me, this is really the first example of mass-produced ambient computing intended for the masses. However, environmental computing only really became popular in the 2010s and has only been a widespread phenomenon for about five years.
Examples of ambient computing in both the cinema and everyday life
While the movie theater is full of examples of ambient computing in sci-fi movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” with the HAL computer that had a sentient personality – and may or may not have opened pod doors on demand based on its own set of whims – as well as several Star Trek movies where different characters would give voice commands to the computer prefixed with “Computer:”
On a side note, my favorite example of ambient computing or lack thereof in the movies occurred in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”. Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, who has traveled back in time to 1986 to save Earth with his compadres, grumpily realizes he must use a real keyboard to interact with a computer from the 1980s after it understandably fails to respond to his voice commands given in the mouse.
Potential drawbacks of ambient computing
I’ll skip the cliché jokes about Skynet here, although it is a concern to ensure that ambient computing elements adhere to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, which states that technology should not harm humanity, and states that security and privacy are two possible drawbacks of environmental computers. I know people who work in technology and refuse to buy one Alexa device because they are afraid of being spied on.
I can think of another potentially negative aspect here: the loss of certain knowledge and skills. If the computers do things for you, you may become dependent on them for help. What happens if the voice activated temperature control in your home breaks down and you don’t have the expertise to figure out how to turn the heating up or down yourself?
The vendor space in ambient computing
Virtually every major consumer retailer such as Amazon, Google, Samsung, and Apple stock some form of ambient computing products. There are a wide variety of companies operating with the sole purpose of providing and advancing ambient computing.
Such examples include AppZen, which provides a financial AI platform, Eleos Health, which turns voice analysis into clinical insights, Vocalytics, which analyzes audio input to determine events and trends and then sends the necessary alerts, and Ambient.ai, which provides intelligent and provides safe, sustainable environments based on human-level perception.
Current trends in ambient computing
The Alexa, Siri, and Bixby voice assistants need no introduction or description of the value they bring to ambient computing, but these are excellent examples of the concept.
The Apple Watch and fitness tracking bracelets are also good examples of modern era ambient computing, facilitating voice-enabled communication and allowing for tracking and acting on environmental or physical elements related to the wearer. Not only can the Apple Watch tell you how many steps you’ve walked or how many hours you slept last night, it can also detect a potential medical emergency, such as a fall down a flight of stairs, and alert emergency services if the wearer fails to respond to a “Are you OK?” prompt from the device.
There are also plenty of real-world examples of business use of ambient computing. Many examples, such as smart lighting, Alexa for Business, and integration of mobile devices with conference rooms or desktop systems, overlap with consumer needs, but they illustrate how companies can save time and money and improve the user experience for employees through this technology.
Chatbots for shops and customer service websites are another typical example. While they can’t always solve every problem, they can provide basic advice and collect data to pass on to those who can.
Internet of Things devices play a heavy rule in ambient computing. They’re more than just Apple Watches and fitness trackers – they can work in a wide variety of areas to provide a host of services. Examples include security systems and fire alarms, smart factory equipment, medical sensors, and shipping and logistics tracking.
Of course, not every concept thrives and grows with regard to an evolving technology. Anyone remember Google Glass? I tackled the topic myself years ago with high expectations for the product, but the fact that it fizzed just illustrates how technologies evolve: some aspects are getting stronger, while those that don’t fit a niche fall by the wayside.
What’s next in ambient computing
Continuous self-learning is a key element for the future of ambient computing. Amazon.science has an extensive article on the subjectand while we’ve made great strides in self-aware devices and devices, there’s always more opportunity for automation, such as better understanding of human and business habits, trends, and self-maintenance.
Personally, I foresee a day when embedded devices will obviate the need for handheld devices such as smartphones and fitness trackers. This could be an elaborate little module that is injected or inserted into the body, or it could involve something like a simple piece of jewelry for those uncomfortable with the concept of embedded devices.
As communication and integration concepts evolve, ambient computing will grow from a person-to-device or an employee-to-company principle to cast a wider net with more complex capabilities. Companies engaged in two-way transactions can take advantage of ambient computing to automate replenishment, analyze weather conditions to halt deliveries, or automate refunds and discounts.
Consumers could benefit from environmental computers that can detect unusual health or behavior and make recommendations, alert appropriate staff, and contact AI systems at health insurers to negotiate cheaper premiums in exchange for good health as a result of positive habits.
As with so much technology, the only limitations we’re likely to run into are not what the computing resources can achieve, but what the human brain can imagine. Ambient computing will probably help us in that area as well.