What is ambient intelligence and why does it matter?

There’s a lot of hype around the metaverse, virtual reality and augmented reality right now. But while these systems still lack mass-market appeal, there is one technology that has quietly invaded our homes and the workplace. Step forward ambient intelligence.

Originally conceived in the late 1990s by researchers at Xerox PARC, ambient intelligence predicted a smart system which could be embedded into everyday objects or environments, such as buildings, cars, and home appliances. Over time, these objects would  become aware of their surroundings and react accordingly. This concept has evolved, but the basic idea remains the same: to make everyday objects more intelligent.

Welcome to ubiquitous computing

To understand how ambient intelligence works, let’s first look at how we interact with the real world today. Most of us spend most of our days pressing buttons on objects that are physically present in our homes. These include appliances such as refrigerators, microwaves, and washing machines, and  household items including lamps, clocks, radios, and TVs.

To interact with these objects, we typically use an interface — such as a remote control, touchscreen, or keyboard to turn them on or off, adjust their settings, or change their functions.

But with ambient intelligence, instead of using those interfaces to directly manipulate objects, we’ll use them to interact with a digital version of the same object or appliance.

Imagine that you’re sitting in front of your computer. You’d probably use your mouse to click on icons on your desktop, right? With ambient intelligence, you simply speak into your microphone to play music from Spotify. Or you’d ask a voice assistant, such as Siri to turn on your lights.

This type of interaction isn’t limited to your home. With ambient intelligence, you can interact with your phone, tablet, or laptop on the move to check the weather, get directions, make reservations, pay bills, and much more.

Living with ambient intelligence

Many of us already take advantage of ambient technology every day. We ask Siri to remind us to put out the bins, or Alexa to order some shopping. If we forget to pay our bills, Amazon will automatically charge our credit cards for us. And if we forget to set an alarm clock, our smartwatch will wake us up in time for work.

In fact, wherever you look, ambient intelligence already plays a role in the way that we work, play and care for others: 

Ambient homes: Control your home remotely using your smartphone or tablet. You can turn lights on and off, adjust temperature settings, lock doors, and play music through speakers throughout your house.

Ambient cities: Cities around the world are adopting ambient intelligence to improve public safety, traffic flow, energy efficiency, and other aspects of urban life. These efforts often involve the deployment of sensors and wireless networks to collect data and provide real-time information to citizens and government officials.

Ambient offices: Office workers spend most of their day sitting at their desks, and yet there’s no reason why they couldn’t work from anywhere else in the office, or at home. With the right tools, employees can access company resources from their smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers. The downside is that several businesses have deployed ambient intelligence as a way of tracking employee presence and productivity.

Ambient vehicles: Cars, lorries and other vehicles have become increasingly computerised over recent years. Most modern cars come equipped with navigation systems, entertainment systems, telematics units, and other features that allow drivers to interact with their vehicle while they’re driving. Eye tracking software can even tell how well you are paying attention when on the move. 

Ambient healthcare: Wearable electronics like smartwatches, fitness trackers, and activity monitors can monitor users’ health and well-being, keep them informed about important events, and alert them when something goes wrong. Proactive treatments and health regimes have the potential to save social and private healthcare billions of pounds every year. 

The future: context is everything

Ambient intelligence is closely related to artificial intelligence (AI). For example, when you ask Siri to play music, Alexa understands the request and plays whatever song is stored in her memory. When you ask Alexa to read out loud a book, she reads the text aloud to you. And when you ask Alexa to set up a meeting, she schedules it automatically.

But while these examples are impressive, they still fall short of true AI because they don’t anticipate your needs ahead of time. Instead, they respond to your requests based on what they’ve learned about you in the past.

The real promise of ambient intelligence lies in the ability for machines to make decisions and take action without explicit instructions. In other words, they’ll start anticipating your needs and providing proactive assistance.

Here’s an example. As you’re driving home from work or walking up the street from the station, your smartphone sends a message that switches on the lights in your property. As you walk into your appartment, the music playing on your earbuds starts up seamlessly on the kitchen speakers. Cameras in your fridge and larder ping you a recipe based on the ingredients available. 

Governments step in

Of course there’s the dark side too. Amibient intelligence in the form of facial recognition, is being used by governments to identify suspects and law breakers. Criminals use GPS devices to track stolen goods. And companies are using mobile phone location data to target advertising messages to specific individuals.

With its upcoming Data Markets Act (DMA) law, the European Union will ban large online platforms like Facebook from combining user data across different parts of their business, or using data from some parts of their business to boost others. The goal is to help other companies that lack user data to enter into the market.

Ambient intelligence also has its place alongside the metaverse. While the latter wraps the participant in a realistic, virtual environment, ambient intelligent is a more subtle and less intrusive.

There’s also the suggestion that ambient intelligence will wean us off our smartphone addiction. Rather than leaning in to devices non-stop for notifications and entertainment, ambient intelligence serves up the information that we need when we need it. Given the rates of smartphone dependency which currently exist, that can only be a good thing.

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