The ambient intelligence decade

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Technology zoomed ahead in 2020 and 2021, spurred in large part by the global pandemic. Companies embraced digital transformation and AI, driven by a need to connect remote workers, improve efficiency, and offer new online services. This surge of adoption has also added renewed focus on a variety of technologies including augmented and virtual reality, blockchain, and the rollout of 5G communication networks. We have indeed entered an age of acceleration.

In turn, these developments are leading to new innovations such as the metaverse. First envisioned in the 1990s, the same underlying technologies to make the metaverse concept a fully immersive and seamless experience are now approaching maturity. Over the next several years and certainly by the end of the decade, the metaverse will be very much a regular part of our digital lives.

The metaverse is not the only idea that is being supercharged by recent technical advances. Through smartphones and IoT devices, computing increasingly surrounds us becoming everywhere a part of the human environment. This represents a nexus of long-term trends, such as ubiquitous or pervasive computing and the mobile internet. This is leading to ambient intelligence – described in Fortune as “computers and AI humming in the background of people’s lives.” First envisioned in the 1990s by Eli Zelkha and his team at Palo Alto Ventures, emerging ambient intelligence will augment our human capabilities almost as an intuitive sixth sense.

This will lead to new use cases. For example, imagine this travel scenario: When you debark from a flight you will receive a message via smartphone, smartwatch, earbuds, or AR glasses alerting you to the carousel where you can find your checked luggage. The device could then guide you directly to the carousel, either through voice directions or visually with arrows. Once the bags are available, another message would alert you that your taxi or rideshare – human driven or automated, terrestrial, or airborne – is waiting and where it is located. If you are going to a hotel, another alert will arrive enroute to let you know that you are checked in and provide the room number and the digital passcode. Once at the hotel, an attendant will welcome you by your name, which appears in their glasses. All of this serves to streamline processes, reduce time in queues, limit the frustrations of travel, and offer a more productive and pleasant experience.

This increasingly ambient technology is a consequence of ever smaller transistors in processors used in laptops, smartphones, point-of-sale terminals, cameras, cars, and additional devices. Many of these computing devices are now becoming so sophisticated that they increasingly blend into the built environment until only the user interface remains perceivable.

We have come a long way

In the early 1960s, before development of the integrated circuit, the state-of-the art computer system was the RCA 501. Then one the world’s fastest computers, the 501 was a massive machine that weighed 5,000 pounds. It was part of the first generation of computers with transistors instead of vacuum tubes.

The 501 had 32K memory. Fast forward almost 60 years and a 14-inch MacBook Pro laptop supports 32GB, one million times the 501. The trend continues with one large developer of computer processors suggesting a further 1000x increase in performance is possible over the next several years. In combination with software improvements, that advance will continue to fuel ever smaller and more capable computing devices, leading to greater ambient intelligence.

Examples already exist, from Apple Watches that include an electrocardiogram for monitoring heart health to the plethora of devices for the smart home, including doorbells with AI-enabled facial recognition. What is significant and new over the last couple of years is the infusion of AI into all manner of edge devices including smartphones and IoT, providing the foundation for what increasingly is being called the Artificial Intelligence of Things. Additionally, these devices are now being supported by a growing edge-cloud infrastructure to perform localized processing and minimize communications latency from centralized data centers, yielding faster response times. These growing capabilities will lead to increasingly sophisticated scenarios.

For example, imagine someone with a heart condition who is wearing an Apple Watch, Amazon Halo Band, Oura Ring, or another similar device that is continuously monitoring cardiac vital signs. At the beginning of an arrythmia or another anomaly, the device could communicate directly with their cardiologist via WiFi or cellular network. In turn, the doctor or their team could take several actions including calling the patient, scheduling an appointment, or sending a prescription to the pharmacy. Taking this further, analysis of the monitor readings could be performed by an AI application leading to a recommendation for the doctor. The result is the patient receives the fastest and best possible care.

To infinity and beyond

Achieving this futuristic ambient intelligence vision requires further development and technical advances. Incorporating AI processors into edge devices will make them faster and more reliable, for example. Semiconductor design will need to continue the gains of the last 60 years. Applying AI to semiconductor development will not only speed-up design time but also likely provide a boost in performance and energy use optimization. And applications and their integration will need to become more sophisticated.

That said, technology adoption is always a double-edged sword. Issues of ethics around data privacy and the appropriate uses of facial and other biometric recognition continue to be sources of concern and widespread debate. In a Fortune article, Fei-Fei Li, co-director of Stanford University’s Human-Centered AI Institute, warns there are societal dangers of ever-present computing, constantly gathering and analyzing people’s behaviors in the physical world. As much as the technology constraints, navigating these ethical challenges will also inhibit the realization of an ambiently intelligent world.

Nevertheless, the mesh of digital sentience will continue to emerge, and new use cases and their benefits will make this ever more compelling. Developments such as the metaverse and ambient intelligence will be the fulfillment of long-term visions. For example, in the early 2000s companies were touting the advances of a digital lifestyle. By 2030, these twin advances – the metaverse and ambient intelligence – will be a pervasive part of our increasingly digital lives.

Gary Grossman is the Senior VP of Technology Practice at Edelman and Global Lead of the Edelman AI Center of Excellence.


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