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Ambient computing, the computer is in the objects around us

Ambient computing

The future of computers, ambient computing and ambient intelligence

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Walt Mossberg explained that ambient computing is "the transformation of the environment all around us with intelligence and capabilities that don't seem to be there at all."

Font: Article The Verge

With ambient computing the user can interact with the computer without worrying where it is.

We could ask what we need with our voices, a keyboard, or a pencil. The device that processes that information could be anywhere in the environment. In the building where we are, in the clothes we wear, or in a remote server we connect to with a new kind of wifi.

We are not quite there yet. Technology is not able to do all of that. But many signs show us that we are moving in that direction. We even have a taste of it: small computers, voice assistant, internet of things and wearables.

The computer is smaller

We have seen in the last few years a battle to make computers smaller and smaller. Each new desktop and laptop is thinner and has fewer bezels. Laptops are gaining ground to desktops. Tablets are substituting for laptops in many tasks. Phones win all the others in the small day to day tasks.

Some people say that the phone is the ultimate computer. With the present evolution, it is easy to imagine it as a piece of glass with no bezels. We are not far from that.

Computers are smaller and smaller, and one day they might disappear. That step involves ambient computing.

Voice assistants, internet of things, and wearables are the precursors of ambient computing. Let's take a look at them first.

Voice assistants

Voice assistants like Amazon Echo, Apple Siri, Google, and Microsoft Cortana are a big step towards ambient computers. The user can enjoy the benefits of a computer only using their voice. It is easy to make an entire home reachable.

Voice assistants have a lot of limitations by now:

- Security concerns. A lot of us do not want to have something always hearing us. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are increasing their power around the world. They are institutions that control all communications and technology. Their power has no border restrictions. It makes sense to have concerns about letting them hear us at any moment.

- Input limitations. With a voice assistant, users can interact with computers with only their voices. But many times, we need to include text or pictures. Perhaps we do not want other people to hear what we say, the task is difficult to explain aloud, or we need to be precise. In those cases, we need to write, make physical contact with the computer to solve the problem.

- Only at home. Laptops, tablets, phones, and wearables cannot always be running and listening for commands. It would consume a lot of battery to do so. There are also other technical limitations. Because of that, voice assistants that are always listening are only available at home and always connected to the grid.

- They do not understand well. Amazon Echo only works with the English language. The others have many languages, but they often misunderstand humans.

The last two limitations that I mentioned are improving fast, and we can see that technology will solve those problems in a few years. But the first two are very far from our reach. Perhaps voice assistants will not be able to tackle that, and we will need another paradigm.

To read more information about voice assistants see my other posts:

- Voice Assistant, the marketing behind
- Amazon Echo, the marketing behind
- Voice Assistant, the graphic

Internet of things and ambient computing

In a very simplified way, the Internet of things (IoT) is the connection of objects to the Internet. They can be cars, buildings, or household devices like fridges or washing machines. It provides the possibility of exchanging information between them and with humans.

IoT can facilitate ambient computers. If objects have an Internet connection, the computer can be in the object or in the cloud through the object.

There is a relation between the two concepts. IoT can be the precursor or can facilitate ambient computing.

Wearables and ambient

A wearable is a computer device worn on the body.

Font: Wikipedia

Smart watches and fitness trackers are examples of wearables.

The Internet of things and wearables together can make possible the creation of an ambient computer.

For humans, it is more comfortable to have the computer in the objects around us because:

- We do not need to carry anything.

- Size and space are no problems anymore. All the efforts to make the computer small can be addressed to other things. If the main computer is in the building, in the car, and in the street, size will not be a problem. We will still need a wearable, but that could be only a simple connector. The working power could be in the big object or in the cloud.

- There is no fear of forgetting the device.

- It will be easier to update. Many times it will be an automatic update or someone else will take care of it.

- It will be harder to have accidents or break it down.

Ambient Intelligence

Ambient intelligence is another term that is very close to ambient computing. Both expressions are almost synonyms.

"In computing, ambient intelligence (AmI) refers to electronic environments that are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people."

Font: Wikipedia.

The term ambient intelligence was first used by Eli Zelkha and his team at Palo Alto Ventures in the late 1990s. They fix the limits of the concept in a clear and straightforward way. To be considered as having ambient intelligence, an object must be embedded, context aware, personalized, adaptive, and anticipatory:

"- embedded: many networked devices are integrated into the environment
- context aware: these devices can recognize you and your situational context
- personalized: they can be tailored to your needs
- adaptive: they can change in response to you
- anticipatory: they can anticipate your desires without conscious mediation."

Font: Wikipedia

I think we could apply to ambient computing most of the precisions made with ambient intelligence.

Ambient computer and ambient intelligence

I prefer the expression ambient computing and the use that Walt Mossberg utilizes. These are the reasons:

- More precise. The Intelligence term is more general than computing. It is true that in the future there could be other types of intelligence that we will not classify as computers. Despite this, intelligence now is too general, too far from our reality.

- It needs less explanation. Ambient computing is easy to understand. By itself, ambient intelligence is hard to relate to the devices that we have now, or we could have in the near future.

- Close to our present. It is clear that desktops, laptops, tablets, and phones are different kinds of computers. Voice assistants and wearables are an evolution, small versions that we put in the environment to assist us. We can all agree that they are computers. Not everybody would say they are "intelligence".

- Less intimidating. Ambient intelligence conveys fear. It suggests to me a general, limitless power, almost close to God. The first thing that comes to my mind are apocalyptic films where the machines control all forms of intelligence, including the human mind.

It also makes me fearful to remember that only four powerful corporations control all of that intelligence.

The ambient computer term is a bit friendlier. It makes it clear that we are talking about computers, simply machines. It does not go beyond.

Walt Mossberg and ambient computing

Mossberg has repeated on several occasions that he did not invent the term. However, it is clear that he explained and made it more popular in the tech community, so all the credits go to him including my admiration and respect.

Walt Mossberg is an American journalist. He was the principal technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal from 1991 to 2013. He co-founded AllThingsD and Recode.

Here is the post where I first heard him talk about ambient computing:

He also talks about it in an interview with Charlie Rose on 07/07/2017. See minute 14:22.


Ambient computing is a new term that encompasses different trends in technology: voice assistants, Internet of Things and wearables. It is also an evolution or consequence of the fact that computers can be smaller each time.

Ambient computing is not a new product; probably it is not even a new trend. It is a new way to explain reality. It is a new way to classify tech and understand what it is happening.

We all have to be thankful to Walt Mossberg for this and many other contributions. He helps me and many others to understand and love tech.

To have more information about the future of computers see the these posts:

The future of computers. The near future
The future of computers. Mid and long term
The future of computers. The infografic
The future of computers. MacBook Pro

All the posts
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