Ubiquitous Computing, Calm Technology and Pervasive Connectivity

This post is a tribute to Mark Weiser.

Mark Weiser coined the phrase "ubiquitous computing" around 1988, during his tenure as Chief Technologist of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

"Ubiquitous computing names the third wave in computing, just now beginning. First were mainframes, each shared by lots of people. Now we are in the personal computing era, person and machine staring uneasily at each other across the desktop. Next comes ubiquitous computing, or the age of calm technology, when technology recedes into the background of our lives." --Mark Weiser

Weiser outlined a set of principles describing ubiquitous computing:

  • The purpose of a computer is to help you do something else.
  • The best computer is a quiet, invisible servant.
  • The more you can do by intuition the smarter you are; the computer should extend your unconscious.
  • Technology should create calm.

In Designing Calm Technology, Weiser and John Seely Brown describe calm technology as "that which informs but doesn't demand our focus or attention."

Oddly, while today we have pervasive connectivity, we are still a long way from calm technology. While technology has made life and business better and more efficient, it often disrupts life and business productivity, demands intense focus and attention, is stressful, and has negative side effects. My two teenage daughters with their numerous smart devices connected 24/7 to anyone and everyone via wireless phone and Internet is strong evidence against the purported "calming" effect of "ubiquitous computing".

The idea of ubiquitous computing built on Mark's earlier research on human-computer interaction, and was further influenced by Xerox PARC's work in networking, the ethnography of computing and workplaces (and its critique of traditional computer design), and graphical user interface research. Building on "a new way of thinking about computers in the world, one that takes into account the natural human environment," Mark hoped to create a world in which people interacted with and used computers without thinking about them. Ultimately, computers would "vanish into the background," weaving "themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it."

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 using information and intelligence that is hidden in the network connecting these devices (see Internet of Things). As these devices grow smaller, more connected and more integrated into our environment, the technology disappears into our surroundings until only the user interface remains perceivable by users.

The ambient intelligence paradigm builds upon pervasive computing, ubiquitous computing, profiling practices, context awareness, and human-centric computer interaction design and is characterized by systems and technologies that are:

  • embedded: many networked devices are integrated into the environment
  • context aware: these devices can recognize you and your situational context
  • personalized: they can be tailored to your needs
  • adaptive: they can change in response to you
  • anticipatory: they can anticipate your desires without conscious mediation

Ambient intelligence is closely related to the long term vision of an intelligent service system in which technologies are able to automate a platform embedding the required devices for powering context aware, personalized, adaptive and anticipatory services.

In order for AmI to become a reality a number of key technologies are required:

  • Unobtrusive hardware (Miniaturization, Nanotechnology, smart devices, sensors etc.)
  • Smart data platforms with high performance data processing and advanced analytics
  • Seamless mobile/fixed communication and computing infrastructure (interoperability, wired and wireless networks, service-oriented architecture, semantic web etc.)
  • Dynamic and massively distributed device networks, which are easy to control and program (e.g. service discovery, auto-configuration, end-user programmable devices and systems etc.)
  • Human-centric computer interfaces (intelligent agents, multimodal interaction, context awareness etc.)
  • Dependable and secure systems and devices (self-testing and self repairing software, privacy ensuring technology etc.)

Ubiquitous computing presents challenges across computer science: in systems design and engineering, in systems modelling, and in user interface design. Contemporary human-computer interaction models, whether command-line, menu-driven, or GUI-based, are inappropriate and inadequate to the ubiquitous case.

This suggests that the "natural" interaction paradigm appropriate to a fully robust ubiquitous computing has yet to emerge - although there is also recognition in the field that in many ways we are already living in an ubicomp world. Contemporary devices that lend some support to this latter idea include mobile phones, digital audio players, radio-frequency identification tags, GPS, and interactive whiteboards.

Mark Weiser proposed three basic forms for ubiquitous system "smart" devices:

  • Tabs: wearable centimetre sized devices
  • Pads: hand-held decimetre-sized devices
  • Boards: metre sized interactive display devices

Today we are experiencing the first wave of ubiquitous computing envisioned by Mark Weiser. While Mark's core concept is likely correct, it is taking a number of strange twist and turns.

Simply put, technology, while pervasive, is often not producing calm. Why?

I have a theory. We are lacking appropriate innovation in human psychology ambient intelligence. Perhaps we are overly focused on business and artificial intelligence without adequately considering the natural human environment.

The first attempts at executing ambient intelligence is creating a mixed brew of ubiquitous computing: pervasive without calm.

I suggest greater balance among the key subsets of ambient intelligence: human psychology, artificial intelligence, and business intelligence.

We have a great deal of work to realize Mark's vision: Ubiquitous Computing, Calm Technology and Pervasive Connectivity. A worthy goal.

This is a great time to be a technology innovator! 

Game on.