What technology industry analyst firm Gartner is calling “the device mesh” is the logical evolution of the Internet of Things. All around us and always on, it will be both ubiquitous and subtle — ambient intelligence.
In that envisioned future we’ll do truly different things, instead of just doing things differently. Today’s processes and problems are only a small subset of the many, many scenarios possible when practically everything is instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent.
We’re also going to need to come up with new ways of interacting with the technology and the infrastructure that supports it. Instead of typing on a keyboard or swiping a touchscreen, we’ll be surrounded by various interfaces that capture input automatically, almost incidentally. It will be a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we think of “computing,” and possibly whether we think about computing at all.
The foundation will be a digital infrastructure that responds to its surroundings and the people in it, whether that means ubiquitous communications, ubiquitous entertainment, or ubiquitous opportunities for commerce. This infrastructure will be so seamless that rather than interacting with discrete objects, people will simply interact with their environment through deliberate voice and gesture — or cues like respiration and body temperature that will trigger the environment to respond.
All these Internet-connected “things” — the sensors, devices, actuators, drones, vehicles, products, etc. — will be able to react automatically, seeing, analyzing, and combining to create value in as yet unimaginable ways. The individual “things” themselves will meld into a background of ambient connectedness and responsiveness.
Think of the trends we’ve seen emerge in recent years:
- Sensors and actuators, including implantables and wearables, that let us capture more data and impressions from more objects in more places, and that affect the environment around them.
- Ubiquitous computing and hyperconnectivity, which exponentially increase the flow of data between people and devices and among devices themselves.
- Nanotechnology and nanomaterials, which let us build ever more complex devices at microscopic scale.
- Artificial intelligence, in which algorithms become increasingly capable of making decisions based on past performance and desired results.
- Vision as an interface to participate in and control augmented and virtual reality
- Blockchain technology, which makes all kinds of digital transactions secure, verifiable, and potentially automatic.
As these emerging technologies become more powerful and sophisticated, they will increasingly overlap. For example, the distinctions between drones, autonomous vehicles and robotics are already blurring. This convergence, which multiplies the strengths of each technology, makes ambient intelligence not just desirable but inevitable.
We’re edging into the territory of ambient intelligence today. Increasingly complex sensors, systems architectures, and software can gather, store, manage, and analyze vastly more data in far less time with much greater sophistication.
Home automation is accelerating, allowing people to program lighting, air conditioning, audio and video, security systems, appliances, and other complex devices and then let them run more or less independently. Drones, robots, and autonomous vehicles can gather, generate, and navigate by data from locations human beings can’t or don’t access. Entire urban areas like Barcelona and Singapore are aiming to become “smart cities,” with initiatives already underway to automate the management of services like parking, trash collection, and traffic lights.
Experts predict that, by 2022, 1 trillion networked sensors will be embedded in the world around us, with up to 45 trillion in 20 years. With this many sources of data for all manner of purposes, systems will be able to arrive at fast, accurate decisions about nearly everything. And they’ll be able to act on those things at the slightest prompting, or with little to no action on your part at all.
Ambient intelligence could transform cities through dynamic routing and signage for both drivers and pedestrians. It could manage mass transit for optimal efficiency based on real-time conditions. It could monitor environmental conditions and mitigate potential hotspots proactively, predict the need for government services and make sure those services are delivered efficiently, spot opportunities to streamline the supply chain and put them into effect automatically.