Have you ever thought about how much machine intelligence affects your life today? If not, don’t be surprised: if «ambient intelligence» is done right, you really shouldn’t have a clue — that’s the point.

Ambient Intelligence (stylized as AmI) is a new way of thinking about human-computer interaction that is characterized by embedded devices, wearables, and the passive adaptation of technology to your needs. AmI’s goal is for technology to maximize its usefulness while minimizing your attention. In other words, AmI tries to be invisible by extracting data from the environment in order to make intelligent, useful decisions for you without you having to ask.

This new paradigm is obviously powerful, but it also comes with its own risks and challenges. As the devices in your world get to know your life in more detail, they also get to know your life in more detail . You might appreciate it if your technology automatically responds to an intimate moment by dimming the lights and changing the music, but you might be uncomfortable with the idea of ​​a large corporation like Google knowing when and where your love life is.

What can ambient intelligence do

AmI is the intersection of two important trends. The first is the so-called «Internet of Things» — networked devices such as Wi-Fi-enabled light bulbs, Internet radio, smart homes. smart devices and wearable technologies that make it easy to present data to the user in a variety of ways.

The second is big data analytics and increasingly powerful artificial intelligence tools that can absorb the flood of data from all these sensors and devices and turn it into useful information that can be used to drive beneficial behavior without human intervention.

Imagine, for example, buying Wi-Fi-enabled speakers that you can place in your home to handshake with smartphones via Bluetooth and select playlists according to what they predict every person in the room will enjoy. Imagine a smart thermostat and lighting controller that has a statistical model of how you behave at different times and in different situations and selectively lights and controls the climate in your home according to your mood and comfort level, while conserving energy.

Imagine a world where you treat your smartphone less as it filters out meaningless alerts and hands over the rest to wearables that alert you without distracting you. Imagine mobile devices and computers that know what you are doing and automatically adapt the interface depending on the context. During a meeting, your phone should behave differently than at home when you’re watching Netflix.

Imagine wearables that tell you what you want to know before you want to know them, always ready to offer you options if you’re stuck, frustrated, or simply bored. A movie that you enjoy playing next to you? An old friend in town for a day? AmI is aware of and may use this information to your advantage.

Google Glass

It goes beyond these simple things though. Software becomes much cleverer. In a couple of years, your phone can give you real-time legal advice, or act as an acting doctor who knows your medical history and tweaks your restaurant and shopping recommendations to keep you healthy. Or it can detect when you’re having a heart attack or asthma attack and respond intelligently by calling emergency services for you.

These are all useful applications and certainly the direction in which tech trends are heading. We’re seeing the first hints of this with wearable displays. like Google and smartwatches and software such as Google Now, which aims to provide the «invisible awareness» characteristic of Ambient Intelligence apps — by giving you the information you think you might need before you ask for it. However, there are some risks to this technology.

Ambient Intelligence Cost

Ambient intelligence is a nightmare of privacy. The more useful the software, the worse it is for your privacy. Even though demographic targeting companies currently have relatively impoverished data available, they can still infer an alarming amount about you.

In one notable incident, a man complained to Target that the store’s website advertised maternity clothing and supplies for his teenage daughter — and was eventually forced to apologize when it turned out the store was right. The pregnancy was simply due to a change in the shopping pattern detected by machine learning software designed to do just that.

When such systems have access to your refrigerator, your heart rate monitor, microphones and cameras on your wearables, and GPS logs from your phone, this problem will only become more common. A future full of ambient intelligence could be a future where big companies know literally everything about you — a complete freak show. Even for people who don’t usually care about privacy, this is a concern.

heart rate monitor

The problem is exacerbated by another important issue of Ambient Intelligence — it ties you to a single ecosystem.

You will never have a Microsoft light bulb to talk to your Android phone or vice versa. If you’re lucky, apps like Spotify will end up supporting more than one ecosystem, but that’s not all.

AmI relies heavily on coordination between a large number of different data sources, which means that all of this data processing must take place under one corporate umbrella, and this probably means that everything will be owned by smartphone OS manufacturers, who are best prepared to tie up a large number of smart devices together in a consistent manner.

This type of ecosystem lockdown means the market is likely to coalesce into partial monopolies, much like the OS space. Less competition means it will be harder to drop your current provider for a more anonymous AmI setup. If people really want privacy, market pressure will force someone to offer it, but I suspect people won’t really care about privacy as much as they say.

Privacy Apocalypse

Over time, and things like this are becoming more common, support private public life is getting harder. The rise of augmented reality will make it very difficult to go out or participate in public social interaction without being recorded on dozens of logging cameras. .

Privacy can move from a constant wait to being a carefully guarded and carefully exercised freedom, interacting with trusted individuals in non-smart, non-wired spaces or over highly encrypted channels of communication with everything in incognito mode.


This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Violent crime will become less common in the future. Memories will be more reliable, and people will be happier and more comfortable — but social norms will have to adapt.

There will no longer be an option to agree to disagree with the past or just forget about embarrassing incidents (once he’s on Youtube, he’s on YouTube forever) — there will always be an objective, constant record. The world must learn to forgive and forget, and public behavior must probably become more careful: if the punishment for doing something stupid when drunk is more consistent, people will eventually become much more careful about what they do. to be drunk in public. ,

As for corporations who know everything about us, in many ways it already is — Google probably knows more about you than you would be comfortable with. In time, we as a society may decide that we are okay with robots examining our lives in meticulous statistical detail, and draw a line further upstream when individuals may get a glimpse of our private affairs. More precisely targeted ads can sometimes be elevated to the level of legitimate utility.

All the costs associated with privacy violations of robots by private companies are very abstract anyway and probably not high enough to overcome the «cool» factor of AmI technology for the average consumer.

AmI is a powerful technological idea and is too useful to be ignored, but it is also a hint of the future and it is scary. Very old cultural beliefs about privacy and social interaction must change quickly, and it is foolish to think that there will be no friction. The next one or two decades will be an unpleasant process of learning about a new landscape of social norms, but the end result of all these changes can lead to important benefits.

What do you think about ambient intelligence? Will you allow it into your home and your life? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image Credit: Caledos Heart Rate Monitor, Nicola, Google Glass, Ted Ethan, PRIVACY, Michelle Zappa

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