ERCIM News No.47, October 2001 [contents]

Ambient Intelligence: a UK Perspective

by Ronan Sleep

The notion of Ambient Intelligence was developed during a series of ISTAG (Information Societies Technology Advisory Group) and other meetings as a guiding vision to give an overall direction to Europe’s Information Societies Technology programme. Ambient Intelligence is essentially an elaboration of Mark Weiser’s vision of Ubiquitous - but Calm Computing which stresses the importance of social and human factors as well as developing the base technologies on which aspects of the vision are founded.

The ISTAG meetings culminated in an IPTS (Institute for Prospective Technology Studies) document which develops a number of scenarios illustrating Ambient Intelligence: see http://www.cordis.lu/ist/istag.htm. These scenarios illustrate the breadth possible applications. Some are relatively near term and are based on applying intelligent agent technology via an extension of mobile communications systems, for example to support a busy executive perpetually travelling from meeting to meeting as in the ‘Maria, Road Warrior’ scenario. In contrast the ‘Ambient for Social learning’ is much more technologically demanding, assuming for example holographic projection and the ability to manipulate an individual’s sound field within a room.

As the scenarios meetings progressed, participants became increasingly concerned with possible impacts of the technology on both individuals and societies. At one extreme, access to the ‘ambient intelligence landscape’ could be restricted to those engaged in high powered decision making involving much travel and many meetings. At the other extreme, the technology could be used in a much more diluted fashion to make small, but ubiquitous improvements in the lives of most citizens. By no means all uses of an ambient intelligence which are possible are desirable: issues of privacy, choice, and trust of human, organisational and artificial actors become paramount: an ill-considered rush into exploiting the technology before it is both desired and trusted is all too likely to foster the sort of reaction faced by the promoters of GM foods.

Although Ambient Intelligence covers a large range of concerns, both human and technical, there are some technologies which might be excluded. They are characterised by Mark Weiser’s statement about Ubiquitous computing: “Ubiquitous computing is roughly the opposite of virtual reality. Where virtual reality puts people inside a computer-generated world, ubiquitous computing forces the computer to live out here in the world with people.”. Seen in this light, Ambient Intelligence is the limit of a process which introduces the technology into people’s lives in such a way that the introduction never feels like a conscious learning curve: no special interface is needed because human experience is already a rich ‘Manual’ of ways of interfacing to changing systems and services. Somehow, we need to create technology that leverages this powerful human resource rather than trying to suppress it by requiring humans to participate in inflexible interaction protocols of the sort supported by current call centre technology.

Figure 1: Towards unobtrusive technology. Here a prototype TESSA system for assisting the hard of hearing is being trialled at a Post Office Counter. Later generations of such technology should merge entirely into the background.
prototype TESSA system for assisting the hard of hearing is being trialled at a Post Office Counter Figure 2: A signing avatar from the prototype TESSA systems.

From this perspective, realising Ambient Intelligence need not wait until we are literally surrounded by the technology: it can begin by studying normal life, using ethnographic and other techniques, and then exploring acceptable ways of using the technology to enhance everyday experience. As people become increasingly empowered, a point is reached where as with the original telephone and its recent mobile offspring it becomes possible to do things that were not possible without the technology. Here at the University of East Anglia in Norwich we have a number of projects exploring this gradualist route to Ambient Intelligence, eg ViSiCAST see http://www.visicast.sys.uea.ac.uk/Publications.html#Presentations.

More generally within the UK the terms pervasive and ubiquitous computing are more prevalent than Ambient Intelligence, but the vision features strongly in a number of recent reports on the future of ICT in the UK. For example, an influential UK government report http://les1.man.ac.uk/cric/dgrc_reports.htm envisages the following developments during the next 5 years:

  • UK-based firms taking leading positions in the development of mobile computing, and contributing to new global standards in the area
  • A further improvement in the availability of venture capital, and in experimentation with new business models
  • Strong UK ‘content’ companies emerging in fields such as
    E-education and E-health
  • Cheap access combined with demanding consumers for ICT services which creates a population which is also skilled and innovative in ICT innovation
  • Government agencies leading the way in releasing the commercial value of under-utilised information through the Internet
  • Rapid growth of B2B and B2C e-commerce.

UK Basic and Applied research in ICT is also being increasingly guided by the general vision of Ambient Intelligence: indeed ‘Pervasive Computing’ is one of five key research challenges identified in a recent report on UK Computing Research (see http://www.cs.ncl.ac.uk/people/cliff.jones/home.formal/UKCRCtoIR.pdf).

Other key challenges identified include System Design, the Information Powered Society, Devices and Theory, and many of the issues covered within these topics have a close match with research issues relevant to Ambient Intelligence.

A flagship UK research activity which has similar motivations to the Ambient Intelligence Vision (although with perhaps more of a Virtual Reality flavour than Mark Weiser would have liked) is the EPSRC funded EQUATOR Interdisciplinary Research Challenge. EQUATOR spans eight sites, including the Universities of Lancaster, Bristol, Nottingham, University College London, Sussex, Glasgow, Southampton and the Royal College of Art, and will involve academics from traditionally disparate disciplines such as computing, sociology and design. To quote Tom Rodden (project leader, now at Nottingham University): “Rather than leap on every small technological step forward, the project will think about how the world might be in five or ten years time, and aim to design and build devices for that moment. We have the opportunity to realise some of the things which technology futurists talk about, but to do it in a very reasoned way. The Equator IRC will investigate all aspects of the development of future devices: the fundamental computational infrastructure required, the theories and concepts that underpin it, the product design that will most enhance the device’s function, and the likely ways in which it will be used. We’re looking at discovering and meeting future needs: what should be developed and how it might fit with the way people live now, and how they might wish to live in the future. We’re looking to see what may or may not be the future.” (The author participated in several of the ISTAG meetings which developed the Ambient Intelligence Landscape vision).

ISTAG: http://www.cordis.lu/ist/istag.htm
VISICAST: http://www.visicast.sys.uea.ac.uk/Publications.html#Presentations
DGRC Reports: http://les1.man.ac.uk/cric/dgrc_reports.htm
EQUATOR: http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/documents/about_epsrc/corporate_publications/newsline_journal/newslin16/smarter.htm

Please contact:
Ronan Sleep - University Of East Anglia,
Norwich, UK
Tel: +44 1 603 592 693
E-mail: mrs@sys.uea.ac.uk