Last week, Amazon unveiled the Echo, a strange robot speaker that works something like Siri in a can. You can tell it to play music, set alarms, look up answers to questions, and add things to your shopping list just by talking.
You might be tempted to dismiss the Echo as just another half-baked Amazon product, and it may very well be. But make no mistake: what the Amazon Echo represents is the first step towards a type of computer that one day will be every bit as common in people's homes as toasters: the ambient computer, a bit of Star Trek technology that is much more practical, realistic, and closer to becoming a reality than the much vaunted universal communicator.
To help you understand the power of ambient computing, here are some things you should be able to do with the Amazon Echo—or an ambient computer like it—in even a couple of years' time. The Echo might not be the first ambient computer to do all of these things, and all of these use cases have privacy and security connotations that would need to be worked out. But the tech to do all of this stuff is present in the Echo as it stands right now: all it needs is the software to back it up.
Nothing is going right. You overslept. You're rushing through the house, looking for your shoes and your keys. You're sure you're going to be late. As you cram your shoe onto your foot while simultaneously scrounging under the sofa for your keys, you call out: "Alexa, what's the best way for me to get to work on time?" A second later, Alexa calmly responds: "There's a bus in five minutes that you can catch if you rush, or I can call you an Uber that will get you to work five minutes early for roughly $18." Finding a $20 inexplicably deposited in your insole, you decided to save yourself some stress. "Alexa, order me an Uber," you say.
Right now, digital assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Amazon's Echo are closed ecosystems, integrated with only a few select services, which limits what you can do with them. By opening up the API so that other services can easily plug into voice assistants, an ambient computer could compare the options provided by multiple services (Uber, biking, public transportation) and contextually present the best options to you, using what it knows about you already (your home address, and your work address) as data points.
"Alexa, where's my wife?" you call out as you enter your house one evening. "She's in the bedroom, napping," Echo tells you, so you decide to go into your office and get some work done. "Alexa, can you tell her where I am when she wakes up?" An hour later, your yawning wife intercoms you in your office: "Hi, baby, good day? How do you feel about joining me in here for about 10 minutes?" The day's certainly starting to shape up.
Amazon Echo constantly listens in the background for you to say a code word, "Alexa." Saying that code word tells your Echo that you're about to give it a command, and to send whatever follows to Amazon's servers. But it's always listening, and that always-on electronic ear could be used to detect so much more than just a code word, such as algorithms that detect a user's footfall patterns and identify where they are in the house, or even listen to someone's breathing patterns to track their sleep cycles. Once your house always knows where you are and what you're doing, the possibilities—like effortless room-to-room intercomming—are potentially endless.
It's been a bad day. It's pouring outside. You're stressed out at work. You are worried your boyfriend might dump you. But when you come home from work, you don't tell Echo any of this, even after Echo asks, "How was your day, today?" Instead, you mutter something to Echo about your day being fine and needing a cup of coffee. Yet somehow, Echo knows you could need some cheering up: a few minutes later, Echo says it's built a playlist of your favorite songs—starting with the Weather Sisters—which might help brighten your mood. And what do you know? It does.
Will.i.am's PULS smartwatch may be stupid, but it does have one smart trick up its sleeve. Thanks to technology by Israel-based company Beyond Verbal, the Puls can analyze your mood just by listening to your voice. Combine this software trick with access to Spotify's 20 million songs, and an ambient computer like the Echo could contextually tell when you're depressed or stressed, and suggest music that you like with a beat or rhythm that is statistically likely to improve your mood...all without you ever having to tell your Echo that you are feeling down at all. It'll just read your mind.
"Alexa, can you preheat the oven to 450 degrees?" you ask, measuring out the ingredients for your killer chocolate chip, peanut butter, and bacon cookies. "No problem," Alexa answers. As the oven heats up, though, you start sweating. "Alexa, will you please notch down the heat a couple of degrees while the oven is on?" you ask. "Of course." After the cookies are done baking, you pull them out of the oven, and tell Alexa to turn off the oven. Remembering what you told her earlier, she also raises the thermostat temperature a couple of degrees while she's at it.
With the Echo, there's been a fair amount of skepticism about the value in breaking out a voice-activated assistant like Siri and Cortana into a piece of furniture. But I think the reason is obvious: so it can operate as a universal ambient controller to your household intranet of things. We're not there yet, and maybe never will be, but if the Internet of Things ever develops an open standard for APIs—something called for by Steve Wolfram of Wolfram Alpha, whose natural language computational engine drives Siri—there's nothing that will stop an ambient computer from tying together all the smart gadgets of your house into an organized whole: your Nest thermostat, your Amazon Fire TV, your electronic locks . . . everything in your house with smarts.
Your wife wants to spend some quality time together, so turn your phone and laptop off, and settle down to watch a movie. Before you start, you say, "Alexa, keep an eye on the Internet for me, and alert me in case of emergencies," After the movie is over, you ask Alexa: "Did I miss anything important?" Alexa tells you that since you've been away, you got an email from your mother, which doesn't seem to be very important; that the Red Sox beat the Mariners 6-3; and that you have three replies on Twitter, one of which seems to be angry. You and your wife decide to watch another movie. Halfway through, Alexa interrupts you, pausing the movie automatically: "I'm sorry to interrupt, but you have an email from your boss. It appears urgent.
Our eyeballs are the casualties of our always-on digital lifestyles. We spend too much time looking at screens, as much as 11 hours per day. Ambient computing can make that a thing of the past, allowing us to take time away from our devices while still remaining connected. With mood-analyzing technology, a database of your interests, and access to your email and social media accounts, ambient computers could allow us to "keep our ears" on the Internet, even if our eyes aren't.