The next stop on the road to revolution is ambient intelligence

It’s easy to see a rainbow when it’s in the distance, but more difficult to discern when you are in its midst. Though it’s still early days, we’re now in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution. Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, says the impending “transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”

Digital technologies now surround us, with many people having multiple devices for business and personal use. When combined with the Internet of Things and its assortment of embedded sensors and connected devices in the home, the enterprise and the world at large, we will have created a digital intelligence network that transcends all that has gone before. Some have referred to this as a “third wave” of computing, where technology gains the ability to sense, predict and respond to our needs and is being integrated into our natural behaviors.

Regardless of definition, we are witnessing an explosion of digital technologies and intelligence. Digital progress is advancing across multiple technologies and seemingly speeding up at an exponential rate. The next stop on the road to the fourth revolution is ambient computing or ambient intelligence, where we continuously interface to the always-on, interconnected world of things. The Internet, then, becomes an Internet of experience, a place where we will dialog with ambient intelligence, or digital intelligence everywhere.

Ambient is generally defined as “surrounding on all sides.” Ambient intelligence is born of digital interconnectedness to produce information and services that enhance our lives. This is enabled by the dynamic combination of mobile computing platforms, the cloud and big data, neural networks and deep learning using graphics processing units (GPUs) to produce artificial intelligence (AI).

An example travel scenario set 10-15 years into the future outlined in Information Week describes arriving in San Francisco. Upon exiting the plane, a traveler will get a message that says, “Welcome to San Francisco. Please go to the curb after picking up your bag.” When at the curb, a self-driving car will meet them and, once inside, advise that the destination is the Marriott hotel.

A recent story notes that computing is on its way to becoming a sea of background data processing that bears little or no relation to the familiar world of PCs and servers. “We will talk, and the world will answer.” We have more than a hint of this with current implementations of Siri, Cortana and Echo. Using natural language processing and AI, these devices understand what we are asking and supply us with useful information.

We are fully within the rainbow of digitally driven change.

In the case of Amazon’s Echo, it can do a lot more than answer a question, including keep track of a shopping list and place orders on, book an Uber ride, control a thermostat and other household appliances, tell you transit schedules, start a seven-minute workout routine, read recipes and do math. Most recently, it can even call a plumber and share medical advice. How long before we see homes and businesses with an Echo-like device in every room?

Futurist and WIRED founding executive editor Kevin Kelly believes that one day in the not too distant future, digital intelligence will flow like electricity and be seen as a utility, or “IQ as a service.” Enterprising people will be able to buy AI much like we do electricity and use what we need. Google, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft have started providing this capability, making it easy to access portions of their AI software.

In Kelly’s view, a winning formula for the next wave of startups is to take something that already exists and add AI to turn it into something more. Self-driving cars are likely the best example of this to date. In citing ambient computing as one of the top technology trends, Deloitte says that products now often embed intelligence as a competitive necessity.

Much of AI is built upon the voluminous amount of data — so-called big data — being collected through search, apps and the Internet of Things. These data provide the opportunity for neural networks to learn what people do, how they respond and their interests, providing the basis for deep learning-derived personalized information and services based on increasingly educated guesses within any given context.

In Shots of Awe, philosopher and technologist Jason Silva says AI is simply the outsourcing of cognition to machines, amplifying the most powerful force in the universe, which is intelligence. He adds there’s no reason to fear this, it’s just evolution.

Another emerging ambient intelligence application is bots, including those recently announced by Facebook. An example is a new personalized news bot created by TechCrunch that uses machine learning to serve up recommended stories from the site. Another article gives the example of a food-ordering bot that will take an order, acknowledge it and pass the order on to an e-commerce system, along with a user’s credentials to approve payment.

A basic implementation would behave and operate much like interactive voice response services over the phone. The article notes that “more complex bots will take advantage of the explosion of machine learning-powered AI systems” to help refine understanding of user context. Accurately parsing the language and appearing to understand the context a person is in will make a bot seem more natural, more like interacting with an actual person, and become an intelligent and ambient part of day-to-day life.

Google is combining voice search and Google Now, its predictive service that shows users information, before they actually go searching for it, in the hopes of creating an omniscient assistant, ready to step in and fulfill any request, including those you haven’t yet thought about. This is being positioned as a universal digital assistant. A recent story describes a Google Bluetooth-enabled lapel pin prototype equipped with a microphone and activated through a simple tap, similar to the communicator on Star Trek.

What is clear is that our AI-powered assistants will increasingly manage our digital activities and address increasingly complex questions and situations. We don’t know what devices are coming, whether lapel pins, augmented reality visors or something else, but we know they’re coming. We are fully within the rainbow of digitally driven change. Will these make life better or somehow easier? We will definitely be more guided by the technology, relegating mundane tasks to ambient intelligence.

Connecting the technologies and crossing the boundaries necessary to provide seamless, transparent and persistent experiences in context will take time to realize. This is all a part of the ambient intelligence future where technology fades into the fabric of daily life, becoming both more pervasive and less overt, present wherever you are and always accessible. It’s still early days, but we’re already living in it, and the speed of advance appears to be accelerating. The revolution won’t be far behind.