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It’s hard to believe that not even 75 years have passed since ENIAC, that room-sized, 30-ton calculating machine, was the number-crunching hero of World War II. Since then, technology has evolved and converged into myriad applications — including the internet; internet of things (IoT); big data; mobile, virtual, and augmented reality; machine learning; and artificial intelligence.

These applications operate infinitely more quickly, ubiquitously, and unobtrusively than ever before. This world of ambient computing, or ambient intelligence, will continue to unleash waves of innovation that will fundamentally change how we live and work.

Ambient computing covers applications incorporating machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence and is characterized by human-like cognitive and behavioral capabilities and contextual awareness. It creates a digital environment in which companies integrate technology seamlessly and invisibly into everything around us, maximizing usefulness while minimizing demands on our attention.

Cisco IoT expert Rowan Trollope sums up the hopes behind this technology when he says, “Ambient computing and AI will provide radically better experiences.”

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The AI-powered ambient era has begun

Ambient computing already provides everyday services ranging from the voice-driven smart speaker in the kitchen to smart thermostats that blend into the background. Virtual digital agents, or chatbots, are also making giant strides by incorporating AI. Solution developer [24] refers to the “age of intent,” when a company’s bot can derive your intent by adding information already available within its databases to the current context of an inquiry. Properly designed, these bots can improve all customer-facing disciplines, including sales, customer service, and marketing.

Far more involved scenarios will soon be possible, with enabling technologies embedded into homes, grocery stores, offices, hospitals, and transportation services.

Here’s one such sequence: A heart monitor embedded in your shirt provides real-time data to a cardiologist, who can then send updated prescriptions to your pharmacist, who can, in turn, send an alert to your smartwatch while you are driving home to say that your medications are ready to pick up. Then your GPS can automatically update itself to route you to the pharmacy, where you arrive in your self-driving car and pay for the prescription using your smartphone.

All the devices and applications in this example are fully integrated, adjusting seamlessly as the user moves from one place to another. This native integration provides a radically better experience than the tangle of applications and actions that are necessary today.

While the term “ambient computing” has been around since the 1990s, the technology required to make it a reality is only now beginning to catch up. Gartner mentioned ambient computing in its report on strategic technology trends for 2016, claiming it would become a major differentiator for independent software vendors and enterprises alike by 2018.

That timing might be optimistic, but several leading vendors have started discussing the concept in recent strategy announcements. Certainly, consumers and tech enthusiasts are already describing home assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home as ambient computing products. This concept garnered initial attention last year through Walt Mossberg’s final column. While attention is growing around ambient computing, it has not yet reached the mainstream. Nevertheless, many companies are, or soon will be, vying for a piece of the action.

Radically better experiences

Radically better experiences mean going beyond efficiency to offer the promise of better living. Some applications could help us maximize our health and prevent disease. The Fitbit Alta AR is an early example, but likely just the beginning. Imagine instead an alarm that alerts you to poor diet choices — based on the items present in your refrigerator and the restaurants you’ve visited — and monitors your levels of physical activity.

Reminders to aim for a healthier lifestyle could include calendared exercise, grocery-shopping suggestions, prompts to help you determine whether eating is being triggered by hunger or emotion, and congratulatory messages as you make progress. In effect, you’d have your own digital health coach, encouraging you to change your behavior in a way that is seamless and continuous while also customized to your readiness and preferences. The results could extend your life and well-being, as well as reducing burdens on the medical system.

These technological advances will inform many aspects of life beyond health care. As a traveler, when you exit an airplane in an unfamiliar city, you would receive a message that says, “Welcome to [the city]. Please pick up your bags at carousel three and then go to the arrivals curb, where your car will be waiting.” When you arrive at the curb, a self-driving car would meet you and, once you’re inside, advise you of the driving time to your destination hotel, then alert the hotel of your anticipated arrival. When you get to the hotel curb, a staff member or a robot would greet you by name and hand over a room key because ambient intelligence would have already taken care of check-in.

Interconnected ambient intelligence

Gartner refers to a “device mesh” enabling ambient intelligence with devices increasingly connected to back-end systems through various networks. Historically, devices have mostly operated in silos, effectively in isolation from one another or in limited networks. In Gartner’s view, a device mesh creates the foundation for a new, continuous, and ambient user experience. How will this work? According to a USA Today story, IoT sensors will feed people’s movements and routines into the cloud, where AI systems absorb and refine the directions they give to the smart devices that execute ambient computing scenarios. It’s a development arena that is moving quickly, suggesting a future in which practically everything is instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent.

Today, however, working applications of ambient computing and AI are more a vision of the future than a commonplace reality, with current products merely hinting at what is coming in the not-too-distant future.

Eternal vigilance needed

While it’s tempting to believe that all of the unfolding applications and scenarios will be positive, some will likely be less pleasant and may feel invasive. Computing intelligence will be nearly everywhere. As stated in an IEEE Spectrum article, perhaps we should worry about ambient overload, where interfaces, connections, and sensors are all but inescapable. There will likely be increased surveillance in both public and digital realms and a general loss of privacy. That’s the main theme in Dave Eggers recent novel, The Circle, with a nod to Orwell, prompting us to remember that vigilance is the price of liberty.

Given the accelerated pace of ambient advancement, we have a unique opportunity to address these concerns now to ensure we realize the promise of AI-powered ambient computing to deliver radically better experiences.

Gary Grossman is a futurist and public relations and communications marketing executive with Edelman.

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