This article is published in collaboration with SAP Community Network

Imagine that your home security system lets you know when your kids get home from school. As they’re grabbing an afternoon snack, your kitchen takes inventory and sends a shopping list to your local supermarket. There, robots prepare the goods and pack them for home delivery into an autonomous vehicle – or a drone. Meanwhile, your smart watch, connected to a system that senses and analyzes real-time health indicators, alerts you to a suggested dinner menu it just created based on your family’s nutritional needs and ingredients available in your pantry. If you signal your approval, it offers to warm the oven before you get home from work.

This scenario isn’t as futuristic as you might think. In fact, what Gartner calls “the device mesh” is the logical evolution of the Internet of Things. All around us and always on, it will be both ubiquitous and subtle — ambient intelligence.

We’ll do truly different things, instead of just doing things differently. Today’s processes and problems are only a small subset of the many, many scenarios possible when practically everything is instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent.

We’re also going to need to come up with new ways of interacting with the technology and the infrastructure that supports it. Instead of typing on a keyboard or swiping a touchscreen, we’ll be surrounded by various interfaces that capture input automatically, almost incidentally. It will be a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we think of “computing,” and possibly whether we think about computing at all.

151127-Internet of Things growth technology

The Internet of not-things

The foundation will be a digital infrastructure that responds to its surroundings and the people in it, whether that means ubiquitous communications, ubiquitous entertainment, or ubiquitous opportunities for commerce. This infrastructure will be so seamless that rather than interacting with discrete objects, people will simply interact with their environment through deliberate voice and gesture — or cues like respiration and body temperature that will trigger the environment to respond.

Once such an infrastructure is in place, the possibilities for innovation explode. The power of Moore’s Law is now amplified by Metcalfe’s Law, which says that a network’s value is equal to the square of the number of participants in it. All these Internet-connected “things” — the sensors, devices, actuators, drones, vehicles, products, etc.  — will be able to react automatically, seeing, analyzing, and combining to create value in as yet unimaginable ways.  The individual “things” themselves will meld into a background of ambient connectedness and responsiveness.

The path is clearly marked

Think of the trends we’ve seen emerge in recent years:

  • Sensors and actuators, including implantables and wearables, that let us capture more data and impressions from more objects in more places, and that affect the environment around them.
  • Ubiquitous computing and hyperconnectivity, which exponentially increase the flow of data between people and devices and among devices themselves.
  • Nanotechnology and nanomaterials, which let us build ever more complex devices at microscopic scale.
  • Artificial intelligence, in which algorithms become increasingly capable of making decisions based on past performance and desired results.
  • Vision as an interface to participate in and control augmented and virtual reality
  • Blockchain technology, which makes all kinds of digital transactions secure, verifiable, and potentially automatic.

As these emerging technologies become more powerful and sophisticated, they will increasingly overlap. For example, the distinctions between drones, autonomous vehicles,and robotics are already blurring. This convergence, which multiplies the strengths of each technology, makes ambient intelligence not just desirable but inevitable.

Early signposts on the way

We’re edging into the territory of ambient intelligence today. Increasingly complex sensors, systems architectures, and software can gather, store, manage, and analyze vastly more data in far less time with much greater sophistication.

Home automation is accelerating, allowing people to program lighting, air conditioning, audio and video, security systems, appliances, and other complex devices and then let them run more or less independently. Drones, robots, and autonomous vehicles can gather, generate, and navigate by data from locations human beings can’t or don’t access. Entire urban areas like Barcelona and Singapore are aiming to become “smart cities,” with initiatives already underway to automate the management of services like parking, trash collection, and traffic lights.

Our homes, vehicles, and communities may not be entirely self-maintaining yet, but it’s possible to set parameters within which significant systems operate more or less on their own. Eventually, these systems will become proficient enough at pattern matching that they’ll be able to learn from each other. That’s when we’ll hit the knee of the exponential growth curve.

Where are we heading?

Experts predict that, by 2022, 1 trillion networked sensors will be embedded in the world around us, with up to 45 trillion in 20 years. With this many sources of data for all manner of purposes, systems will be able to arrive at fast, accurate decisions about nearly everything. And they’ll be able to act on those things at the slightest prompting, or with little to no action on your part at all.

Ambient intelligence could transform cities through dynamic routing and signage for both drivers and pedestrians. It could manage mass transit for optimal efficiency based on real-time conditions. It could monitor environmental conditions and mitigate potential hotspots proactively, predict the need for government services and make sure those services are delivered efficiently, spot opportunities to streamline the supply chain and put them into effect automatically.

Nanotechnology in your clothing could send environmental data to your smart phone, or charge it from electricity generated as you walk. But why carry a phone when any glass surface, from your bathroom mirror to your kitchen window, could become an interactive interface for checking your calendar, answering email, watching videos, and anything else we do today on our phones and tablets? For that matter, why carry a phone when ambient connectivity will let us simply speak to each other across a distance without devices?

How to get there

In Tech Trends 2015, Deloitte Consulting outlines four capabilities required for ambient computing:

  1. Integrating information flow between varying types of devices from a wide range of global manufacturers with proprietary data and technologies
  2. Performing analytics and management of the physical objects and low-level events to detect signals and predict impact
  3. Orchestrating those signals and objects to fulfill complex events or end-to-end business processes
  4. Securing and monitoring the entire system of devices, connectivity, and information exchange

These technical challenges are daunting, but doable.

Of course, businesses and governments need to consider the ramifications of systems that can sense, reason, act, and interact for us. We need to solve the trust and security issues inherent in a future world where we’re constantly surrounded by connectivity and information. We need to consider what happens when tasks currently performed by humans can be automated into near invisibility. And we need to think about what it means to be human when ambient intelligence can satisfy our wants and needs before we express them, or before we even know that we have them.

There are incredible upsides to such a future, but there are also drawbacks. Let’s make sure we go there with our eyes wide open, and plan for the outcomes we want.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Daniel Wellers is Director at SAP Community Network Marketing. 

Image: Internet LAN cables are pictured in this photo illustration. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne.