This week, Amazon held a September hardware event — the Seattle company’s second — in its gorgeous new urban botanical garden, The Spheres, where it refreshed its Echo smart speaker lineup (including the Dot, Plus, and Show), unveiled new appliances and accessories (the Echo Wall Clock, AmazonBasics Microwave, Echo Link, Echo Link Amp, Amazon Smart Plug, Echo Auto, and Fire TV Recast), and debuted a subwoofer of questionable utility (Echo Sub). That’s 11 device launches, if you’re counting.

To me, one of the most intriguing things announced on Thursday was Alexa’s improved conversational skills. In the coming weeks and months, Amazon’s voice assistant will leverage its wealth of accumulated knowledge about human behavior to anticipate which commands, information, and tasks are most relevant at any given moment. For example, if you tell an Echo speaker, “Alexa, good night,” it might say in response, “By the way, your living room light is on. Do you want me to turn it off?”

This sort of personalized, contextual experience — commonly referred to as ambient computing — was once the stuff of science fiction, but advancements in artificial intelligence (and ambitious new startups taking full advantage of those advancements) are fast making it a reality.

South African-based Xineoh developed a platform for predicting consumer behavior with AI that it claims isn’t just faster than any other solution available, but also more capable. It can match people with products, inventory with sales opportunities, and customers with usage patterns to predict buying cycles with a high level of accuracy.

Nuance this week launched its take on ambient computing: the aptly named Nuance Prediction Service. Like Xineoh, it enables brands to forecast customer behavior and respond in an automated — but highly relevant and appropriate — fashion.

Ambient computing is making waves in the corporate world, too, where digital adoption platforms (DAP) are capturing tens of millions of investor dollars. WalkMe is one example — its platform makes use of overlays, tip balloons, and other visual elements to walk users through websites and software. AI informs the placement and frequency of those elements.

And ambient computing has practically become a staple of consumer devices, like the recently announced Apple Watch Series 4, which uses AI — plus a deluge of sensor data — to detect when a wearer suffers a potentially life-threatening fall.

That’s not to paint ambient computing — or the technology enabling it — as a runaway success story. If it’s to proliferate, considerable privacy and transparency challenges must be overcome.

Gordon Morrison, director of EMEA government affairs at Splunk, and Kay Firth-Butterfield, head of artificial intelligence and machine learning at the World Economic Forum, touched on these issues in an open letter.

“For good reason, algorithms may be given access to huge datasets from multiple sources,” they wrote. “In many applications, the more diverse the dataset being analyzed, the better and more accurate the outcome. However … we must be transparent about what we are using data for, and ensure that citizens consent to its use.”

Encouragingly, preliminary efforts are already underway.

IBM this week announced the launch of a cloud-based, automated service that “continually provides [insights]” into how AI systems are making their decisions and recommends ways the impact of biases might be lessened. It also launched in open source a toolkit — the AI Fairness 360 toolkit — containing a library of algorithms, code, and tutorials for implementing bias detection in machine learning models.

IBM’s not the only one leading the transparency charge. At its F8 developer conference in May, Facebook announced Fairness Flow, an automated bias-catching service for data scientists. Microsoft and Accenture have released similar tools.

They’ll have to allay the fears of a justifiably skeptical public, though. Recent public opinion surveys show a worldwide decline in trust in technology. And with reports from the World Economic Forum, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Gartner, and the McKinsey Global Institute predicting that AI could make redundant as many as 75 million jobs by 2025, that skepticism is likely to become more pronounced.

The true promise of ambient computing, Gary Grossman, senior vice president at Edelman’s AI Center of Expertise, wrote in March, is “[an] environment in which companies integrate technology seamlessly and invisibly into everything around us, maximizing usefulness while minimizing demands on our attention.”

That’s a beautiful vision, and it’s my sincerest hope that the industry can iron out the kinks to make it a reality.

For AI coverage, send news tips to Khari Johnson and Kyle Wiggers — and be sure to bookmark our AI Channel.

Thanks for reading,

Kyle Wiggers
AI Staff Writer

P.S. Please enjoy this video of the new Amazon devices announced this week.

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