A Straightforward Guide to Ambient Computing

by Sam Wainwright

We’re at the start of the ambient computing era. The topic has been floating around since the 1990s, but ambient computing is starting to come to the surface and increase in usage, popularity and awareness.

Ambient intelligence has managed to find it’s way into the everyday objects we own. It wants to become a part of our infrastructure in order to improve and make things easier for us to achieve. It will mean we no longer have to connect, control, sync or even notice that an environment has changed for our benefit. It does all of that for us.

What is ambient computing?

Ambient computing devices want to play a part or become the ‘backdrop’ of all of our lives and to shape it in some way.

It couldn’t be defined as a technology as such, and there are some conflicting ideas on what it actually is. Ambient computing can come in various forms, but the basic definition is often described as:

“An interconnected array of computing devices or objects which react to a specific environment and are capable of transferring data to each other without human intervention.”

It’s not something you can operate fully, it reacts to the environment in which it is installed. It collates data, turns that data into a signal and then into an insight which is fed back to us. Devices become extensions of each other, rather than discrete, independent computer platforms.

In our everyday life

You may own an ambient computing system or have been in contact with one, without knowing it. It could be tracking you at home, work or in

public. To understand how impressive the systems can be and how much we are unknowingly ‘feeding’ the systems with data on a daily basis, we’ve collated some of the key examples of where you could have come across ambient computing. Or even, where it would have come across you.

Motion sensors

One of the simplest and most identifiable types of ambient computing. You’d have most likely come into contact with motion sensors in the form of an automatic door, which detects your presence and opens itself for you to walk through. It works by identifying you as a human who wants to enter the building via the door and reacts to your need by opening the door for you.

Lighting sensors

Have you ever been sitting in front of your computer or phone screen and it’s suddenly become brighter or darker? That’s probably the act of an ambient light sensor and it’s photodetector identifying the amount of light present in your environment and in turn, automatically adjusts the screen’s light to suit it – without your command or input. This is to ensure that the screen is always at its most readable.

Thermostats

Thermostats can automatically regulate the temperature within a room, but a smart thermostat is so much more than that. They are part of the Internet of Things (IoT), which is the network of devices which interconnect, interact and exchange data that they have each collated.

Smart thermostats pay attention to various aspects of the room to create the best environment for us to be in or to adjust when we’re not in – saving considerable energy in the long-run. With doors opening and people moving throughout the building or home, smart thermostats can respond to this by independently changing the room temperature.

Wearable sensors

Wearable sensors use the human body as a transmission channel in order to communicate and cooperate with each other, or the human can transmit the data themselves to a peripheral device.

The key aspect which makes wearable sensors different from any other type of ambient computing applications, is that the sensors are positioned directly or indirectly onto the body. They must have the ability to be independently influenced by the wearer, but can also be operated by the wearer hands-free.

Don’t just think of the Apple watch, wearable sensors can be embedded into various types of clothes, hats, glasses and shoes. Overall, their job is to monitor aspects of a person’s physiological state and movements such as body position, pulse and skin temperature.

Criticisms

With all of the brilliant things that ambient computing can do, there are some tough criticisms of it. The most significant one is privacy, or more specifically, the loss of it.

David Wright, a critic of ambient computing, has questioned the societal, political and cultural concerns surrounding it’s confidentiality and the loss of privacy. In his book, ‘Safeguards in a World of Ambient Intelligence’ (2008), he illustrates the threats and vulnerabilities that he predicts ambience intelligence will leave us susceptible to, and how we will have to safeguard ourselves from them. He writes: “AmI (Ambient Intelligence) networks, like existing networks such as the internet, are such that they evolve as new software and many different people and entities add technologies. Thus, building trust and security into networks inevitably involved an effort of trying to create trustworthy systems for untrustworthy components.”

Even though the book was written over 10 years ago, it undoubtedly has some relevance in demonstrating the balance of creating technologies which can become so intelligent that we don’t even notice how they are improving our lives, but at the same time these devices could become so intelligent, that we can no longer control them.

The main topics of conversation for critics are the decrease in privacy within society, the power given to large organisations and hyperreal environments where you can’t figure out where reality ends and the virtual begins, and vise-versa. They want ambient intelligence to be in the hands of The People instead of organisations.

 

Before now, technology developments have always been hands-on – we’ve always been in control and fully aware that we’re connected. Funnily enough, with ambience computing becoming more entwined into our lives, we are able to gain a sense of disconnect from all things technology. Ambience computing is able to predict what we want and need without us having to ask for it. Perhaps, before we even realise we need it.