What is… ambient computing?

A monthly tech explainer series about the technology shaping our world today, from the Garage.

By Poornima Apte — April 12, 2023

In a classic scene from The Minority Report, when John Anderton (Tom Cruise) walks around a crowded plaza, every advertising display automatically resets to beam customized content — only for him. Author Philip K. Dick’s 1956 vision predicted the basis for today’s ambient computing, a wide open field that describes technology that is fully integrated into our environment. Woven into voice assistants and wearables, ambient computing works without explicit human interaction through a traditional interface such as a computer or mobile phone. If you’ve ever called on Alexa to queue up your favorite playlist or add an item to your grocery list, you’re familiar with what ambient computing can do for our comfort, convenience, and enjoyment. 


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Eric Chow

How it works

Ambient computing works by learning your needs, sensing the environment, and reconfiguring the environment to meet those needs. Behind the scenes, it’s a carefully choreographed dance between sensors, software, and digital devices, using technologies like artificial intelligence and cloud computing. To make ambient computing work, you have to share your data — John Anderton had his eyes scanned by biometric devices — either explicitly by opting in through an app, or implicitly when you sign up for services. AI programs learn your preferences over time. Sensors measure the environment and act on it, using AI-generated insights, to meet your needs. True ambient computing facilitates experiences and actions without you even noticing.

The a-ha moment

The idea for ambient computing took root in the 1980s when computer scientist Mark Weiser floated the idea of seamless environment-embedded systems. Always on, they would kick in only as needed and be an unobtrusive part of our surroundings. The smart home thermostat brought ambient computing to the masses. The technology gained momentum with the availability of cheap internet-connected sensors that could relay live data and systems that could act on this data in real-time. Subsequently, big companies placed a bet on inexpensive voice assistants to make it easy for consumers to order goods and check the weather while cooking or driving.

What it means for everyday life

Ambient computing powers the “just walk out” concept in retail where customers simply load their baskets and leave, their purchases scanned, tabulated and charged for before they exit. Wearables that notify an emergency unit if the user falls or if glucose levels fall dangerously out of range are ambient computing at work. Smart buildings are using ambient computing to remember office setting preferences. When an individual worker walks into a room, the mood lighting changes and meeting rooms and work spaces are automatically booked.

How it might change the world

Expect more devices at home and at business to talk to each other seamlessly. A sensor embedded in your fridge will detect when the milk has expired and automatically send in a grocery order to be delivered. Or an empty inventory shelf in a store triggers automatic reordering and restocking depending on preset needs. Ambient computing will galvanize more “just for you” tech leading to deeper and more predictive personalization at an individual level — perhaps so much so that the world around you will be tailored perfectly to your preferences. For example: When you walk into a room, the lighting and temperature will adjust to your preferences, with the desk angled to your height. Or when zipping through the airport, you might see just yours, and no one else’s, gate information and departure time to blip across public screens. 

Expect ambient computing to have a hand in your digital experiences, such as within the metaverse or your favorite gaming universe, and your IRL ones — controlling everything, everywhere, all at once.


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