‘Ambient intelligence’ is a term that has risen to prominence as a means to conceptualise a class of technologies, or even an entire philosophy, regarding the ever-present role that technology will come to play in our lives. The term has been around since the 1990s, but it has not yet come to fruition.
Wrapped up in the idea is a vision for the future that recasts technology as ambient music – a comforting background noise that pervades and subtly moulds our environment without overtly announcing itself. Every metric – from both ourselves and our environments – will be measured and used to adjust the optimal output of our surroundings. Devices and interfaces will melt away to leave in their place a seamless melding of technology with the physical world.
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In one sense ambient intelligence is the internet of things (IoT) taken to its most extreme logical conclusion. The rise of voice interfaces is integral to this vision of the future because it removes the physical barrier between you and your desired outcome.
“More and more we’re spending our time thinking about the devices,” Scott Huffman, Google’s VP of engineering for conversational search told Time in 2016. “With these devices, voice is really the only option.” Technology will be everywhere, but we won’t see it, we will only hear it, he posits.
Also bundled up in this view of ambient intelligence is technology’s slow pivot from ‘understanding behaviour’ to ‘predicting behaviour’.
The theory goes that as we are increasingly tracked and analysed that, instead of simply explaining behaviour, systems will be able to foresee and proactively meet demands before they’ve been uttered, or even mentally assembled. This was the intention with Google Now, which began life with ambitions to become an ‘omniscient assistant’ that would combine voice search and analytics to predict users’ needs. (Although it has since been diminished to a purely traffic- and travel-focused product.)
Smart speakers and their embedded AI assistants can be considered our earliest forms of ambient computing devices today, as they slowly erode the interface layer between us and technology. Our sister publication, Computerworld writes that ‘ambient technology’ or ‘ambient intelligence’ could be shaping up to be a buzz term of the year and Samsung has already named its smart home operating system Project Ambience.
Ambient computing is really just the culmination and interweaving of lots of emerging technologies today: AI, IoT, voice-powered tech. However for the vision to be truly realised, there has to be a degree of data interoperability that is currently not allowed for between different tech providers. For data to slide around seamlessly between different devices and companies, there demands a (much) looser definition of data privacy than we have today and a set of common technology standards to exist.
Whether our current worries about data privacy will prove a blockade in the ambient evolution, or whether these concerns will melt away as rapidly as the new interfaces, remains to be seen.