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What is ambient computing? Everything you need to know about the rise of invisible tech

Ambient computing explained - what it is and where it is going next.
Written by Sabrina Ortiz, Editor
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What is ambient computing, in simple terms?

Ambient computing, also commonly referred to as ubiquitous computing, is the concept of blending computing power into our everyday lives in a way that is embedded into our surroundings - invisible but useful.

The goal is to reduce the friction involved in utilizing tech, making it easier for users to take full advantage of technology without having to worry about keyboards and screens. 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 of your devices to work together seamlessly to fulfill your needs. 

"In a multi-device world, people don't want to spend their life fussing with technology. An ambient approach gets the tech out of your way so you can live your life while getting the help you need," Rick Osterloh, Google's SVP of Devices and Services, said during Google's I/O 2022 keynote. "It doesn't matter what device you're using, what context you're in, whether you're talking, typing, or tapping. The technology in your life works together seamlessly." 

Why is it called ambient computing?

As the definition of the word 'ambient' implies, ambient computing refers to technology that is immersed in your surroundings, ready to help without any prompting. For example, instead of having to turn down the temperature, a smart thermometer can automatically adjust based on learned patterns. From this stems the idea of a 'smart home', which incorporates tech into every object of your home to optimize how you accomplish everyday tasks. 

This sounds a lot like the Internet of Things (IoT). What's the difference?

If you were thinking that the IoT and ambient computing sound a lot alike, you aren't wrong; 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. For example, a lightbulb that connects to an app is an IoT device; however, how the lightbulb gathers data from its surroundings about your preferences and acts accordingly is where ambient computing comes in.

"The Internet of Things lives through sensors and actuators embedded in devices interacting with the world physically and functionally. Ambient computing contains this communication at the core and harnesses the environment for business processes and insights," is how consultants Deloitte explain it. 

What does ambient computing look like right now.

Any device or surface in a smart home could serve as an example of ambient computing. However, the tech that is dominating the space right now is voice assistance. Smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Nest, and assistants like Microsoft Cortana, use artificial intelligence to perform requested tasks.

To blend into the environment more seamlessly, smart speakers often feature minimalist designs, colors and sizes. Instead of having to pick up the device and direct it to do something, you can just talk out loud to your surroundings to accomplish a task. 

The scope of what these voice assistants do continues to grow. Originally, these voice assistants didn't go far beyond the scope of answering a question about the weather or playing a song. Now these devices can do as much as clean your house, turn on the lights and order items to your door.

"There are three jigsaw pieces in ambient computing: a sensor that is a trigger, there's a stream of data, and a CPU that can process that data," says Royston Seaward, NSE Marketing & Commerce Leader at Deloitte. 

In addition to voice assistants, ambient computing uses all aspects of modern-day technology, including artificial intelligence, sensors, connectivity, cloud computing and more. There doesn't need to be a focus on any obvious gadgets at all - the computing power might be in the cloud and invisible at the point of use. What differentiates ambient computing isn't the hardware itself, but rather how the technology is programmed and used. 

"We think technology should require less from us, make our lives easier, and fade into the background when we don't need it. We're trying to develop technology that adapts to us, not the other way around, so we can focus more on the real world," says Vishal Sharma, Vice President, Amazon Alexa AI Information to ZDNET. "And advancements in things like sensors, artificial intelligence, natural language understanding, and edge capabilities make that possible."

What are other examples of ambient computing?

Beyond the smart home, ambient computing can also help in business operations. 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 because both the smart casting tech and sound system live in the conference room at all times, cannot be seen and facilitate an everyday activity. 

Who are the leaders in ambient computing?

Ambient computing is a fast evolving space; there are many different companies trying to develop technologies from gadgets to software to the infrastructure that sits behind all of it. Both Amazon and Google are keen to lead the space by expanding the amount of devices that connect to their voice assistants. 

Amazon has an extensive portfolio of smart home devices that connect to Alexa, including light bulbs, doorbell cameras, alarm systems, smart plugs, thermometers, air purifiers, photo frames, pet feeders, vacuums, toaster ovens and more. 

"A driving force behind ambient intelligence is Alexa's AI, and it powers everything we build. The orchestration of dozens of sophisticated machine learning systems within Alexa makes it one of the most complex and advanced AI applications in the world," says Sharma. 

Amazon has also developed ambient computing that you can take on the go with you. The Echo Auto is a device you can place on the visor of your car to bring a voice assistant with you on your travels. This voice assistant can make calls, play music and most importantly, connect back to your smart home -- circling back to the idea of having all your devices seamlessly connected.

"Our long-term goal is to build technology that makes our customers' lives easier behind-the-scenes so they can focus on what matters most to them. Like asking Alexa to 'turn on the lights'— it's intuitive and easy to use. Customers young and old don't need a manual to figure it out," says Sharma.

Similarly, Google has developed a series of devices to connect to the Google Nest, and although its portfolio is not as expansive as Amazon's. The Google Nest devices include speakers, displays, streaming, smoke & carbon monoxide alarms, security cameras and doorbells.

Both Google and Amazon have also worked on projects to implement built-in voice assistance technology into cars. Google technology has been built into the infotainment systems in some cars manufactured by Polestar, Volvo, and General Motors, said Google in a blog post. Meanwhile, Amazon announced its collaboration with Stellantis in January to introduce customer-centric connected experiences across millions of vehicles.

What are the downsides of ambient computing?

Have you ever watched the 1999 Disney movie Smart House? The movie, way ahead of its time, tells the story of a computerized house that is programmed to help with everything around the house. Plot twist: the house takes on a life of its own and becomes a nightmare. 

Although that's not a danger of today's smart home technology, many are still hesitant to implement artificial intelligence into their everyday tasks -- especially given the privacy risks. When devices are using artificial intelligence to tune into and learn your behavior to better assist you, what happens with that data is a valid concern.  

"Security and privacy issues are the top challenges we see within ambient computing and smart assistant technologies," says Low at research firm Canalys. "The privacy issue is usually about how user information is collected and used to train and provide AI services".  

That's particularly the case when you are introducing devices into the home and allowing them to record and analyse your highly personal habits. That means securing the devices and the data becomes an absolutely top priority.

"A highly connected ecosystem formed by multiple devices with multiple points of connectivity would need more robust security to ensure devices are well secured and protected. The related apps and cloud services also must be protected," says Low. 

Despite this concern, experts think that as a society, we are moving towards a direction in which ambient computing is more widely accepted and these concerns begin to fade. The determining factor will be how businesses go about implementing this technology.  

"I think that public trust will depend a lot on the ability of those businesses that receiving all this data in handling it with a degree of integrity," says Seaward. 

Besides building trust in data and privacy security, it is important for companies to build trust amongst consumers on whether these devices can reliably do what they are intended to do. 

As voice assistants continue to expand their functions, they become responsible for tasks of greater importance to a person's life, whether that's locking your front door or ordering groceries.

In order to let a voice assistant take up such an important roles, there must be a level of trust between the consumer and the device based on reliability. Until that level of trust is set in place, consumer hesitancy will prevent ambient computing benefits to be entirely maximized. 

"As customers begin to rely on ambient systems, we do see them engaging more deeply, and across more aspects of their lives. This comes with an expectation that these systems become steadily better as they are used, and we work hard to live up to that," says Sharma.

What is the future of ambient computing?

Ambient computing is an important topic today because all technology is moving in that direction. We already find ambient computing built into almost everything we use. Today, the goal of tech developers is to find ways to both create technology that facilitates everyday functions, but also works together seamlessly. With industry giants like Google and Amazon leading the space, it won't be long before everyone follows. 

"Technology and connectivity will be even more pervasive in the future. That means we won't be confined to our smartphones, laptops, and the usual touch-point devices for computing needs. Platform vendors must design ecosystems with highly interoperable operating systems and services to push forward the ambient computing shift," says Low.

The key to harnessing the power of ambient computing lies in the power of the data. 

"The business that is able to abstract and consolidate that data in and then add value to that data are going to create new revenue streams for them and add more value to their customers," says Seaward. 

In the future, ambient computing may expand further than just the smart home. 

"There'll be sectors like transport and energy that are being smarter. Whether it be a smart city, or a smarter power grid or a smarter water supply, people are more likely to see an evolution within their cities," says Seaward. "So I think you're going to see that for most places, smart cities really mean slightly better, more efficient power, slightly better, more efficient transport slightly better, more efficient, pervasive connectivity." 

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