In this article we discuss ambient computing. We answer the following questions: What is ambient computing? What are some examples of ambient computing? What are the benefits? What are the challenges? In a follow-up article, we will look at the relevance of ambient computing for lawyers.
What is ambient computing?
Ambient computing is the idea of embedding computing power into everyday objects and environments, to make them smart, connected, and responsive. The goal is to make it easier for users to take full advantage of technology without having to worry about the details. Instead of having to directly interact with different computing devices to get desired results – for example, using your phone to make a phone call and your remote to turn on a TV– ambient computing allows all your devices to work together seamlessly to fulfil your needs.
Ambient computing relies on a variety of technologies, such as sensors, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, voice recognition, gesture control, and wearable devices, to create a seamless and personalized user experience. Ambient computing devices are designed to be unobtrusive and blend into the background, so that users can focus on their tasks and goals rather than on the technology itself.
Why call it ambient computing? The Oxford Dictionary defines the word ambient as “relating to the immediate surroundings of something.” So, in this vision of ambient computing the technology is largely invisible and integrated into our surroundings. For this reason, it is also often referred to as ubiquitous computing.
The concept of ambient computing is closely related to the concept of the Internet of Things. Sabrina Ortiz in ZDNet: “the two concepts are intertwined. IoT refers to the vast array devices that connect to the internet to optimize their functionality, like smart sensors and smart speakers: ambient computing builds on that. ‘IoT forms a base for ambient computing, with ambient computing more focused on how devices and intelligent services interact with users,’ Jason Low, principal analyst at the research firm Canalys, tells ZDNET. In other words, ambient computing focuses on the interaction between these devices once they are connected.”
Ambient computing is not a new idea, but it has become more prevalent and accessible in recent years, thanks to the advancements in the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, and 5G networks. These technologies enable a vast array of smart devices, sensors, data, and agents that can communicate, analyse, and act in the background.
Some examples of ambient computing
One of the most widespread examples of ambient computing devices are smart speakers and personal voice assistants. Think, e.g., of devices like Amazon Echo, and Google Home. These devices allow users to control their smart home devices, access information, play music, and more, simply by using their voice. Users can speak naturally to their surroundings, without having to look at a screen or press a button. These smart speakers and personal voice assistants and connected devices can turn you home into a smart home where almost everything can be controlled from your phone, or it can be voice controlled. This includes lights, microwave ovens, window blinds, thermostats, washing machines, etc.
Another example of ambient computing is found in cars. Present day cars have all kinds of technology embedded in them, and they are all seamlessly integrated. They have built-in cameras, microphones, and a legion of sensors that all collect and process data in a seemingly unobtrusive way. Consulting firm McKinsey predicts that 95% of new vehicles sold globally will be connected ones by 2030.
Ambient computing can help in business operations, too. The pandemic changed how corporations operate, with many workplaces still having hybrid work models in place. To mitigate the problem of having employees in different places, many workplaces have developed conference rooms that have a sound system which picks up voices from across the room for Zoom calls and allows for smart casting of virtual meetings on a big screen. These office spaces are a great example of how ambient computing is implemented: both the smart casting tech and the sound system remain active in the conference room at all times, cannot be seen and facilitate an everyday activity.
Ambient computing is also expanding to other domains, such as health care, education, entertainment, and transportation. For instance, wearable devices such as smartwatches and fitness trackers can monitor users’ health and activity levels and provide feedback and recommendations. Smart glasses and augmented reality headsets can overlay digital information onto users’ vision, enhancing their perception and interaction with the physical world. Self-driving cars can sense their environment and navigate autonomously, while providing passengers with entertainment and comfort options.
What are the benefits?
As the above examples demonstrate, ambient computing clearly has the potential to bring many benefits to users and society at large. To mention but a few:
- Convenience: Ambient computing can make users’ lives easier by automating tasks, simplifying interactions, and providing personalized services.
- Efficiency: Ambient computing can improve users’ productivity and performance by reducing errors, saving time, and optimizing resources.
- Engagement: Ambient computing can enhance users’ enjoyment and satisfaction by creating immersive and interactive experiences.
- Empowerment: Ambient computing can enable users to access information and opportunities that they might not have otherwise.
What are the challenges?
As with any technology, ambient computing also poses several challenges and risks that need to be addressed. The most important challenges include:
Privacy: Ambient computing can collect vast amounts of data about users’ behaviour, preferences, location, health, and more. This data can be used for beneficial purposes, such as improving services and personalization. But it can also be misused or compromised by malicious actors or third parties. Or they can just be sold to third parties. Research by the Mozilla Foundation reveals that many car manufacturers, e.g., make a bigger profit from the collected data they sell than from the actual sales of cars. And that is alarming.
Security: Ambient computing can expose users’ devices and data to cyberattacks or physical tampering. This can compromise users’ safety and functionality of their devices. Cars and baby monitors, e.g., appear to be easy targets for hackers.
Ethics: Ambient computing can raise ethical questions about users’ autonomy, consent, trust, responsibility, and accountability. For example, who decides what data is collected and how it is used? How transparent are the algorithms that make decisions for users? How do users balance convenience with control?
Accessibility: Ambient computing can create digital divides between those who have access to ambient technology and those who do not. This can create inequalities in terms of opportunities, education, health care, and social inclusion.
Ambient computing is already changing the way we live and work. It offers many benefits, but there also are some serious challenges that may require extra regulation. In our next article, we have a closer look at its relevance for lawyers.