The decade of ambient intelligence

In 2020 and 2021, technology advanced at a breakneck pace, fueled in part by the global epidemic. The need to link remote workers, enhance efficiency, and offer new online services drove companies to embrace digital transformation and AI. This uptick in usage has refocused attention on a number of technologies, including augmented and virtual reality, blockchain, and the deployment of 5G communication networks. We have undoubtedly entered a period of rapid change.

As a result of these advances, new technologies such as the metaverse have emerged. The same underlying technologies that made the metaverse notion a fully immersive and seamless experience were first envisioned in the 1990s and are now approaching maturity. The metaverse will become a regular part of our digital lives during the next few years, if not by the end of the decade.

The metaverse isn’t the only concept that’s been boosted by recent technological advancements. Computing increasingly surrounds us, becoming a part of the human world through smart phones and IoT gadgets. This is a crossroads of long-term developments like ubiquitous or pervasive computing and mobile internet. Ambient intelligence – “computers and AI humming in the background of people’s life,” according to Fortune – is the result of this. Emerging ambient intelligence, first envisioned by Eli Zelkha and his colleagues at Palo Alto Ventures in the 1990s, will supplement our human capacities almost as an intuitive sixth sense.

This will result in new applications. Consider the following travel scenario: When you disembark from a flight, a message will be sent to your phone, smartwatch, earphones, or AR glasses alerting you to the carousel where your checked luggage can be found. The device might then navigate you to the carousel, either through voice commands or visual arrows. When the bags are ready, you’ll receive another message informing you that your taxi or ridesharing – human or automated, terrestrial or airborne – is waiting for you and where it is. If you’re travelling to a hotel, you’ll receive another alert en route informing you that you’ve checked in and providing the room number and digital passcode. When you arrive at the hotel, an attendant will greet you by your name, which will be displayed in their glasses. All of this helps to streamline operations, minimise time spent in lines, lessen travel inconveniences, and provide a more productive and enjoyable experience.

The ever-smaller transistors in processors used in laptops, cellphones, point-of-sale terminals, cameras, automobiles, and other gadgets have resulted in this more ambient technology. Many of these computing devices are now so advanced that they blend into the built environment to the point that just the user interface is visible.

We’ve come a long way since then

The RCA 501 was the state-of-the-art computer system in the early 1960s, before the development of the integrated circuit. The 501, at the time one of the world’s fastest computers, was a gigantic machine weighing 5000 pounds. It was one of the first computers that use transistors rather than vacuum tubes.

The 501 featured a 32K memory capacity. Fast forward nearly 60 years, and a 14-inch MacBook Pro laptop can hold 32GB, a million times the original 501. The trend is expected to continue, with one major computer processor manufacturer predicting a 1000x improvement in performance over the next few years. That advancement, together with software advancements, will continue to fuel ever smaller and more capable computing devices, resulting in increased ambient intelligence.

There are already examples, such as Apple Watches with an electrocardiogram for monitoring heart health and a multitude of smart home gadgets, such as doorbells with AI-enabled facial recognition. What’s new in the last few years is the integration of AI into a wide range of edge devices, including smartphones and IoT, laying the groundwork for what’s becoming known as the Artificial Intelligence of Things. Additionally, a rising edge-cloud architecture now supports these devices, allowing them to do localised processing and reduce communications latency from centralised data centres, resulting in speedier reaction times. As these capacities improve, more complex scenarios will emerge.

Consider a person with a heart issue who wears an Apple Watch, Amazon Halo Band, Oura Ring, or any gadget that continuously monitors cardiac vital signs. The device might interact immediately with their cardiologist via WiFi or cellular network upon the onset of an arrythmia or other abnormalities. As a result, the doctor or their staff may contact the patient, schedule an appointment, or send a prescription to the pharmacy. Taking this a step further, an AI application may analyse the monitor readings and provide a recommendation to the doctor. As a result, the patient receives the best and quickest care available.

To the horizon and beyond

This futuristic concept of ambient intelligence will necessitate more research and technological advancements. Integrating AI processors into edge devices, for example, will make them faster and more dependable. Semiconductor design will need to maintain the progress made in the previous 60 years. AI in semiconductor creation will not only reduce design time, but will also likely improve performance and energy efficiency. In addition, applications and their integration will need to improve.

Technology adoption, on the other hand, is always a double-edged sword. The appropriate use of facial and other biometric recognition, as well as data privacy issues, continue to be topics of concern and controversy. Fei-Fei Li, co-director of Stanford University’s Human-Centered AI Institute, cautions in a Fortune article that ever-present computing, which constantly gathers and analyses people’s behaviour in the physical world, poses societal risks. Navigating these ethical problems will obstruct the realisation of an ambiently intelligent world just as much as technological obstacles.

Nonetheless, new use cases and benefits will continue to emerge, making the mesh of digital sentience even more enticing. Long-term visions will be realised through developments such as the metaverse and ambient intelligence. Companies, for example, promoted the benefits of a digital lifestyle in the early 2000s. By 2030, these two technological breakthroughs – the metaverse and ambient intelligence – will be ingrained in our increasingly digitised lives.