Why the Future of the Computer Is Everywhere, All the Time
‘Ambient computing’ is coming, and it promises to change how we interact with the world. But there are still a lot of challenges—and concerns—to overcome.
‘Ambient computing’ is coming, and it promises to change how we interact with the world. But there are still a lot of challenges—and concerns—to overcome.
Imagine this scenario in the not-too-distant future. You’re awakened at 6:11 a.m. by the gentle sounds of tinkling bells and birdsong, even though you live in a 12th-floor apartment. Your alarm clock uses radar to track your breathing, and wakes you gently, with sound and light, when it detects you’re in a lighter phase of sleep.
Your transition to wakefulness triggers a cascade of changes in your apartment. Your window shades open automatically. In the kitchen, coffee starts brewing. As you pad into the bathroom to brush your teeth, a display projected onto the mirror above the sink shows your calendar for the day. It highlights what time you’ll have to leave to get to your office for the in-person meeting you scheduled for 8:30.
Returning to your bedroom, you find your stowaway robotic bed has retracted into the ceiling, and your collapsible walk-in closet has expanded to reveal your clothes and a full-length mirror. The mirror suggests, based on your schedule and the weather, an outfit it displays as an augmented-reality overlay that moves with your body as you inspect yourself. You aren’t fond of the first option, so you make a swipe-left gesture in the air. The mirror responds by suggesting another outfit. You signal assent, and the two drawers containing the items you want glow around their edges, so you don’t have to waste time hunting for them.
As you dress, a newscast starts playing from the nearest speaker. When you walk into the kitchen, the sound follows you from a speaker in that room as well. You decide that’s enough, and ask for silence, and a moment later all you can hear are the last burbles of the coffee maker.
If this morning sounds fanciful to our present-day ears, it’s only because so few of us have experienced its individual elements, all of which are possible today or likely to be so in the very near future. What will make such a morning possible, even mundane, is what tech companies call ambient computing.
As in the early days of the cloud, the definition of ambient computing is slippery, subject to revision, and more than a little aspirational. In general, ambient computing is the idea that we’ll interact with the world through a growing assortment of gadgets and sensors, many of which will be physically embedded in our environments. And we’ll interact with this technology in a growing variety of ways—from voice and gestures to simply existing in a space full of sensors that track our every action.
If this sounds reminiscent of previous ideas about the Internet of Things or the smart home, that’s because it’s an evolution of those concepts. But ambient computing is something bigger and, at least in theory, more usable. The smart home of today is largely transaction- and device-focused. We tell our connected thermostat to raise the temperature, and it does. We tell Alexa to play a song, and it does. We tell our wearable heart monitor to let us know when our heart rate goes awry, and it does.
By contrast, in the ambient world, the technology is all around us—unseeable and untouchable. Sensors know when we wake up, set the heat at what we always want, play the songs we like, get the autonomous car ready for the meeting they know we have and suggest clothes appropriate for that meeting. There are a lot of steps between where we are today and this ambient world, but most tech leaders think we’re well on our way to this destination.
Today, for instance, Alexa can already do many things that we may someday think of as being part of ambient computing, from controlling the lights in our homes to walking us through a meditation routine before bedtime, says Dave Limp, senior vice president of devices and services at Amazon.com Inc. “But is this easy enough for consumers?” he asks. “The answer is no. That’s why we believe this ambient intelligence revolution is five to 10 years out.”
Amazon’s recent spate of device announcements—including an update of its home-monitoring Astro robot, the debut of its Halo Rise bedside sleep-tracking device, and new TVs that detect a person’s presence in a room—all point to its long-term ambitions to be everywhere in our homes, sensing and responding to everything.
And Amazon is hardly alone. Alphabet Inc.’s Google also recently announced new devices to bring its computing everywhere we are, from the home—with a new Pixel tablet designed to double as a smart-home control hub—to everyplace else we go, in the form of its new Pixel smartphones and smartwatch. Since 2019, Google executives have been talking about how ambient computing is core to the company’s vision of the future, and how they think the company’s custom, AI-focused chips, which now appear in its phones and tablet, will be central to that.
Google’s array of devices—headphones, phones, smart-home hubs and the like—is meant to create a “personal, intelligent, cohesive computing experience,” wrote Rick Osterloh, Google senior vice president of devices and services, in a recent blog post. This vision, he said, is “what we have been building up to for a while.”
One of the biggest challenges to making ambient computing work for the masses is that no matter how good our voice-based assistants and other sensors are at understanding our desires, a huge amount of work still needs to be done behind the scenes to enable all that hardware and software to act on them.
“I dream of a world where I can walk through my house and say ‘What time is my flight tomorrow?’ or ‘When is my next credit-card payment due?’ But to do that you need to connect all the plumbing,” says Mark Webster, who works on audio and voice products at Adobe Inc.
Some of that “plumbing” already exists—such as that built by companies that want to make their services available through the dominant smart assistants. But for now, at least, this leads to a transactional, task-based mode of interaction with smart assistants.
“Google and Amazon talk about this assistant that’s always available to you to do actions, take requests and have some anticipation of your needs,” says Ben Bajarin, chief executive and principal analyst at consumer-tech research firm Creative Strategies. “But I don’t think that’s how consumers view it—it’s more like, I can turn my lights on, play music, do a search. For consumers, there’s no ‘always’ around sentient AI.”
Going further, and making our smart assistants capable of more than the most straightforward interactions, will require connecting those assistants not just to various services but to each other, says Mr. Limp. That is, our smart assistants have to be able to talk to any smart-home or smart-building gadget, no matter which smart assistant we own or brand of gadget we buy.
A new standard, called Matter—which Apple Inc., Google and Amazon have all signed on to—promises to do just that. There’s a lot going on under the hood, but what it amounts to is that we will no longer have to check the back of a new smart light or smart lock to see if it’s compatible with our smart assistant. Devices that support Matter will start arriving by the end of this year, and eventually the standard could supersede the proprietary communications standards that have so far held back smart-home adoption.
Matter is in many ways just the beginning of the rollout of new ways to wirelessly connect all the smart things in our world—in homes, offices and industrial facilities. Other standards in the works could allow the connection of not just dozens of objects to a single wireless access point, but hundreds or even thousands. These standards will be necessary for realising the part of ambient computing that is all about peppering our world with sensors and then handling all the data that results.
New wireless communications networks like these will be needed as the number of connected devices continues to grow, says Steve Statler, senior vice president of marketing at Wiliot, a supply-chain technology company based in Israel. His company recently unveiled a combination sensor and tiny computer that requires no batteries to operate and could some day be manufactured for pennies apiece. These tags are essentially stickers that get slapped onto things in supply chains that retailers want to track, like crates of goods.
Now imagine, for instance, that every item in your refrigerator has a similar smart tag on it, and the moment you run out of something, like peanut butter, your refrigerator automatically reorders it for you. Amazon tried a version of this before—buttons that let people reorder things with just a tap—but in a world where our voice assistant can also be made a party to household consumption, running out of something could trigger our smart speaker to ask our permission before an item is reordered, which could help consumer adoption.
Accomplishing this sort of thing would mean tracking so many objects at once—think every consumable in our homes—that it would overwhelm current base stations for interacting with wirelessly connected devices. That’s why new ways to connect all the sensors, computers and other devices are needed.
What’s also needed are more smarts.
“We often say the problem with ‘smart buildings’ is that it’s a total euphemism,” says Troy Harvey, chief executive of PassiveLogic, a Salt Lake City-based company that helps engineers and building managers control lighting and HVAC systems in offices and apartment buildings with complicated environmental controls. “When people say ‘smart,’ they just mean connected—so where is the smart part?”
That’s the void that Google, Amazon and other companies aim to fill.
Already, a third of all actions performed by Alexa, it does proactively, without an immediate prompt by a user, says Mr. Limp. Most of these are simple repetitions of a requested action—for example, when a user asks Alexa to wake them every weekday morning at a certain time. But the engineers who build Alexa are also starting to give it the ability to operate on a hunch. For example, if for the past 30 days you always ask Alexa to turn off your connected porch light before you go to bed, and on the 31st day you forget, Alexa will in some cases do it for you. Another example: If you drive away and forget to close your connected garage door, Alexa might someday recognise that and close it on your behalf.
For ambient computing to make our lives easier, it’s going to have to start doing a lot more of this sort of thing. The challenge is that if the system guesses wrong, “customers get very frustrated, very quickly,” says Mr. Limp. For instance, if Alexa tries to turn your lights off when you go to bed on the 30th day, because you did that the previous 29, but this time you left them on because you wanted them to be on for a family member who was arriving late, well, that’s pretty annoying.
Then there’s the issue of privacy and how much of it we may have to give up to achieve new heights of convenience and life automation. “One could argue you need sensors all over your house to do machine learning to start to predict your behaviour,” says Mr. Bajarin at Creative Strategies. But his own company’s research suggests that, despite the popularity of smart doorbells and outdoor security systems, one of the best sensors to accomplish this—surveillance cameras—isn’t going into people’s living rooms, bedrooms or bathrooms, for obvious reasons.
Trust is easily lost, says Mr. Limp, who points out that Amazon’s Echo Show smart speaker has a built-in cover for its camera, which also switches off the camera when it’s rotated into place. Amazon told Congress in July that 11 times in the previous year, the company gave footage from its Ring security cameras to authorities without user consent. The company has said it did so only in the event of an “emergency request” from law enforcement when the company “made a good-faith determination that there was an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury.”
“We take these requests very seriously and regularly deny those that don’t meet the standard,” says an Amazon spokesman. “This is also clearly disclosed in our privacy notice.”
Still, consumers are always potentially sensitive about putting sensors—especially cameras—inside their homes. So if they hear that Amazon may give up footage from those cameras, that should give them pause, no?
It also isn’t clear, given the endless game of cybersecurity cat and mouse between tech companies and hackers, whether the smart home, office and factory will become a new way that ordinary people make themselves vulnerable to being hacked.
And then, of course, there’s the inescapable fact of Murphy’s Law, and the way that increasing complexity in a system increases the likelihood of its failure—like getting locked out of your house by a smart lock or being misidentified as an intruder in your home.
Can these problems be solved? Almost certainly, and just as certainly there will be bumps along the way. The question for tech companies is just how big those bumps will be, and how much it slows down the march toward an ambient world.
“We’ve been thinking of buildings as buildings,” says Mr. Harvey of PassiveLogic, “but buildings, it turns out, happen to be the world’s most complicated robots.”
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At the World Plogging Championship, contestants have lugged in tires, TVs and at least one Neapolitan coffee maker
GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.
Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.
A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.
“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”
Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.
So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.
A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.
Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.
“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.
Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.
“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.
Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.
“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”
Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.
“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.
“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.
As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.
With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.
“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.
The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.
“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.
Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.
“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”
The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.
“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.
In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.
Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.
Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.
“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.