Ambient Intelligence

In computing, ambient intelligence (AmI) refers to electronic environments that are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people. Ambient intelligence is a vision on the future of consumer electronics, telecommunications and computing that was originally developed in the late 1990s for the time frame 2010–2020. In an ambient intelligence world, devices work in concert to support people in carrying out their everyday life activities, tasks and rituals in easy, natural way that uses information and intelligence that is hidden in the network connecting these devices (an Internet of Things).

As these devices grow smaller, more connected and more integrated into the world, the technology disappears into our surroundings until only the user interface remains perceivable by users. The ambient intelligence paradigm builds upon ubiquitous computing (ever-present, always on), profiling practices (the use of algorithms to discover patterns or correlations in large quantities of data, aggregated in databases), context awareness (complementary to location awareness), and user-centered design (in which the needs, wants, and limitations of end users of a product are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process).

Wearable computers are intended to be embedded (networked devices integrated into the environment), context aware (able to recognize you and your situational context), personalized (tailored to your needs), adaptive (changing in response to you), and anticipatory (able to effectuate your desires without conscious mediation). More and more people make decisions based on the effect their actions will have on their own inner, mental world. This experience-driven way of acting is a change from the past when people were primarily concerned about the use value of products and services, and is the basis for the experience economy (where memory itself becomes the product). Ambient intelligence addresses this shift in existential view by emphasizing people and user experience. The interest in user experience also grew in importance in the late 1990s because of the overload of products and services in the information society that were difficult to understand and hard to use. A strong call emerged to design things from a user’s point of view. Ambient intelligence is influenced by user-centered design where the user is placed in the center of the design activity and asked to give feedback through specific user evaluations and tests to improve the design or even co-create the design together with the designer (participatory design) or with other users (end-user development).

In 1998, the board of management of Philips commissioned a series of presentations and internal workshops, organized by Eli Zelkha and Brian Epstein of Palo Alto Ventures (who, with Simon Birrell, coined the name ‘Ambient Intelligence’) to investigate different scenarios that would transform the high-volume consumer electronic industry from the current ‘fragmented with features’ world into a world in 2020 where user-friendly devices support ubiquitous information, communication and entertainment. While developing the Ambient Intelligence concept, Palo Alto Ventures created the keynote address for Roel Pieper of Philips for the ‘Digital Living Room Conference,’ 1998. In 1999, Philips joined the Oxygen alliance, an international consortium of industrial partners within the context of the MIT Oxygen project, aimed at developing technology for the computer of the 21st century. In 2000, plans were made to construct a feasibility and usability facility dedicated to Ambient Intelligence. This HomeLab officially in 2002.

Along with the development of the vision at Philips, a number of parallel initiatives started to explore ambient intelligence in more detail. Following the advice of the Information Society and Technology Advisory Group (ISTAG), the European Commission used the vision for the launch of their sixth framework (FP6) in Information, Society and Technology (IST). The European Commission played a crucial role in the further development of the AmI vision. Also, the Fraunhofer Society started several activities in a variety of domains including multimedia, microsystems design and augmented spaces, and MIT started an Ambient Intelligence research group at their Media Lab.

An ambient intelligence system is assumed to operate behind the scenes, for example: Ellen returns home after a long day’s work. At the front door she is recognized by an intelligent surveillance camera, the door alarm is switched off, and the door unlocks and opens. When she enters the hall the house map indicates that her husband Peter is at an art fair in Paris, and that her daughter Charlotte is in the children’s playroom, where she is playing with an interactive screen. The remote children surveillance service is notified that she is at home, and subsequently the on-line connection is switched off. When she enters the kitchen the family memo frame lights up to indicate that there are new messages. The shopping list that has been composed needs confirmation before it is sent to the supermarket for delivery. There is also a message notifying that the home information system has found new information on the semantic Web about economic holiday cottages with sea sight in Spain.

She briefly connects to the playroom to say hello to Charlotte, and her video picture automatically appears on the flat screen that is currently used by Charlotte. Next, she connects to Peter at the art fair in Paris. He shows her through his contact lens camera some of the sculptures he intends to buy, and she confirms his choice. In the mean time she selects one of the displayed menus that indicate what can be prepared with the food that is currently available from the pantry and the refrigerator. Next, she switches to the video on demand channel to watch the latest news program. Through the ‘follow me’ she switches over to the flat screen in the bedroom where she is going to have her personalized workout session. Later that evening, after Peter has returned home, they are chatting with a friend in the living room with their personalized ambient lighting switched on. They watch the virtual presenter that informs them about the programs and the information that have been recorded by the home storage server earlier that day.

However, as far as dissemination of information on personal presence is out of control, ambient intelligence vision is subject of criticism. Any immersive, personalized, context-aware and anticipatory characteristics brings up societal, political and cultural concerns about the loss of privacy, as soon as any third party gets control over the respective information and status data. However, any disabled person may welcome the implicit information presentation and access to improve support and individual assistance. Hence there must be a distinction between solutions for personal improvement and any other purpose. Power concentration in large organizations, a decreasingly private, fragmented society and hyperreal environments where the virtual is indistinguishable from the real (hyperreality) are the main topics of critics. Several research groups and communities are investigating the social-economical, political and cultural aspects of ambient intelligence. New thinking on Ambient Intelligence distances itself therefore from some of the original characteristics such as adaptive and anticipatory behavior and emphasizes empowerment and participation to place control in the hands of people instead of organizations.

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