Ambient Computing

An Introduction To Intelligent Environments

The first thing that jumps to our mind when we think of Ambient Computing is smart homes but smart homes are just a part of a radical new wave of connected intelligence. Crunchbase reports: In 2017, venture capital funding into U.S.-based Internet of Things (IoT) startups alone reached its highest annual mark as investors poured $1.46 billion into startups. That’s up 42 percent from $1.03 billion in 2016, and 216 percent more than the $461.7 million raised in 2013. Again, the IoT is just a fraction of the total ambient computing environment. Machine Learning systems and cloud computing add to the growing infrastructure of intelligent environments. Thus, hardware, software, machine learning, cloud systems, communication protocols all form part of an ever expanding universe.This article outlines the building blocks of Ambient Computing and provides a glimpse into a future full of connected intelligence.

The Home That Bill Gates Envisioned

My first brush with ambient computing was in 1995. I was reading Bill Gates’ book “The Road Ahead”. Of course, the richest man in the world had to have a smart home. In the book, Gates went on to describe how ambient intelligence is going to be so ubiquitous as to be completely invisible and pervasive just like the air around us. That vision has become a reality two decades later with the advent and proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT). As per Wikipedia: “In computing, Ambient Intelligence (AmI) refers to electronic environments that are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people”.

In his book, Bill Gates described a visitor wearing a device similar to a lapel pin which would essentially interact with sensors around the house to dim the lights and play the music the visitor likes as he enters a room. The actions, as Richard Brautigan wrote: “all watched over by machines of loving grace”.

Of Transducers and Actuators

The first law of thermodynamics, also known as Law of Conservation of Energy, states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; energy can only be transferred or changed from one form to another. That transformation is known as transducing.

A transducer is an electronic device that does just that. It transfers one form of energy into another. Transducers have been around for a long time. An example is a stereo speaker system that transfers electronic signals into sound. Tiny transducers are embedded in extremely small micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) whereas large transducers can be incorporated in larger devices such as autonomous vehicles.

A sensor is also a transducer that takes changes in variables such as temperature, moisture, light and converts it into data.An actuator then takes that signal and transfers it into an output such as dimming the light. However, a sensor and an actuator can physically be the same. In short, sensors provide an input to a system and actuators generate an output.

Brains of The Operation

In addition to sensors and actuators which form the hardware, every smart device has a software such as the tvOS for Apple TV or iOS for iPhones etc. The software is embedded on microchip and form the brains of the operation. For instance, in case of a Philips Hue lighting system, there is a control center called Hue Bridge that is connected to the users smart phone and the home Wi-Fi network. The smart phone sends the signal to the control center which tells the chip inside the Philips Hue bulb to switch on and off.

Today, devices such as Google Home, Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri use android and iOS to respond smartly to voice commands sensed by sensors and translated into software commands.

The new breed of devices such as the NEST 3rd generation Thermostat learns your preferences and creates a daily temperature schedule for the user.

Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (ML&AI) are now increasing device intelligence exponentially and devices can now learn and reprogram their own software to meet our daily needs efficiently.

The Connectivity

While Bluetooth is used to connect two devices over a short range, Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) can be used to serve a multitude of devices and allow them to connect to each other and to the internet. However, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are only a small part of a host of communication protocols that will allow devices on the IoT to communicate with each other.


Experts predict 5G (the next generation in cellular connectivity after LTE) will catalyze exponential growth in the IoT. On its website, Ericsson states: 5G is much more than just fast downloads; its unique combination of high-speed connectivity, very low latency, and ubiquitous coverage will support smart vehicles and transport infrastructure such as connected cars, trucks, and buses, where a split second delay could mean the difference between a smooth flow of traffic and a 4-way crash at an intersection.

Then Comes The Internet of Things (IoT) or Does It?

The year was 1926 and Nikola Tesla was being interviewed by Colliers magazine when he said: “When wireless* is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole………and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

The term Internet of Things (IoT) was coined by Kevin Ashton, a British Technologist, who co-founded the Auto-ID center at MIT in 1999. Thus, the concept of an IoT is not a new concept just like Virtual Reality or Artificial Intelligence. Only the investment and availability of devices mentioned above is of more recent origin.

The larger point is that many ‘seemingly’ new technologies are nothing but building blocks of existing technology cobbled together.

Source: HBR, September 10, 2015

IHS Markit claims that more than 75 billion smart devices will be in use by 2025. That’s a 400% increase over the roughly 15 billion devices in use today . Applied Materials, ON semiconductors and LAM research are three prominent semiconductor manufacturers powering the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT).(source: NASDAQ)

Is The Future Hyper Real?

Take smart devices and take them outside with millions of sensors spread across the city and automobiles that can communicate with each other using communication protocols and suddenly you have connected intelligence all around the city. The outside environment will also be intelligent only in different ways. Today, a car can be programmed to pay for fuel using cryptocurrency and then automatically drive off.

Shot in Medelin, Colombia, Keiichi Matsuda’s conceptual film Hyper Reality offers a glimpse of a world where virtual reality and actual reality are fused together to form a hyper-real world.


The technologies powering a hyper-real world i.e. the IoT, Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Extended Reality (XR) or perhaps Mixed Reality (MR) will allow virtually targeted advertisements and seamless digital payments thereby making technology ubiquitous and creating an always on world that runs in the background. Now imagine, if humans are no longer the Homo Sapiens we know of but instead cybernetic organisms and we take the world to a whole new level.

A Universe of Ambient Life

Human beings are great at deciphering nature’s mysteries and then re-creating them albeit imperfectly. For all the intelligence in the world, one cannot completely rely on technology. Think of the time your GPS system lost satellite connectivity or the time your smart phone couldn’t connect to the internet. In other words, no technology is completely fool proof. Humans have imbued devices with artificial life which still depends on humans for life support. Ambient computing or intelligence is only poised to take off as sensors invade every part of our life which brings us to security and privacy concerns. Another great example of a dilemma is a scenario where an autonomous vehicle has to choose between avoiding two human beings on the road on opposite sides that it can end up hitting. The short answer is that ambient intelligence is in it’s early days just as the Blockchain and AI are.

On the other hand, humans are now embedding RFID chips in their hands and there is a fair likelihood that the future of humans could be cybernetic i.e. we will have chips in our brain to process vast amounts of data.

Put simply, the universe of artificial life or life created by humans will be as boundless as the final frontier and we are all along for the ride. Understanding our journey is the only way to control our future.

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

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