In his final column on Recode, legendary tech journalist Walt Mossberg predicted that computers would fade into the background one day, making way for ambient technology.
Mossberg reported on technology and how it affects people’s lives for 26 years. On May 25, 2017, his final prediction was “the disappearing computer”—ambient technology, he wrote, would transform our environment with “intelligence and capabilities that don’t seem to be there at all.”
Bidding a fond farewell to tech as we know it
Let’s go back to the beginning. In Mossberg’s first ever “Personal Technology” column, published in 1991, he wrote that personal computers were too hard to use. They were complicated, confusing, and not intuitive for people who weren’t technologists.
Over the decades, products have become more reliable and intuitive, as well as smaller and more mobile. Slowly, we’ve integrated computers thoroughly into our lives—and mobile devices are just the beginning. Ambient tech is what’s coming next.
“In some cases, [the computer] may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought,” Mossberg said. “Your whole home, office, and car will be packed with these waiting computers and sensors. But they won’t be in your way, or perhaps even distinguishable as tech devices.”
We’re still in the early days, but that’s where the unfolding tech revolution is headed. The Amazon Echo, powered by Alexa, and Google Home have emerged as the poster children for this trend, and both focus on use for the household. You can look up travel times, check your work schedule, ask for restaurant recommendations, and control temperature simply by speaking out a command.
Cars are also at the forefront of this ambient tech shift. Drivers shouldn’t use their hands to tap away on mobile devices, which is why voice command capabilities will soon be a must-have for vehicle technology. Health care is another example. As The Verge recently reported, Apple is working on a secret project to develop non-invasive sensors (i.e., not needles) that monitor glucose levels for diabetics. And through movies like Her, Hollywood is dreaming up ways ambient technology can even transform relationships.
The workplace stands to be transformed by ambient tech just as much as these other areas. Voice commands, along with computing machines that don’t invade physical space, will create a totally new kind of office environment.
Setting the “ambiance” for the future of tech
Consider, for a moment, the word “ambient.” It’s abstract—ambient lighting, ambient sound—and evokes a feeling that’s unobtrusive yet impactful. In short, it enhances an environment. To accomplish this, devices must understand what’s going on in the real world. Using data, they can anticipate and proactively address needs, adapt to changing conditions, and even make suggestions to inform good decision making.
Let’s say you have an office meeting during lunch next Wednesday. Ambient technology, through integration with other workplace tools, could know where and when the meeting is taking place and how many people will attend. It could even log dietary restrictions and preferences, and automatically order lunch to be delivered.
The technology can also seamlessly accomplish tasks on demand. If a manager has a lineup of new hire interviews, they could use voice commands to pull up the appropriate job application for each candidate as they enter the room. Or during a client meeting, ambient tech could automatically document all questions, follow-ups, and to-dos, so nothing falls through the cracks.
Ambient technology could even help sales professionals close deals by analyzing indicators, such as email open rates or facial responses to presentations, to gauge how receptive clients are to different pitches and messages, and to anticipate what they want to hear. After all, context is key. The same is true for customer service or customer success. By understanding all the information in the background that leads up to a certain interaction, these technologies can ensure that representatives are well-equipped to handle all their clients’ needs.
In addition, ambient technology can reshape responsibilities for IT decision-makers. Take printers: If a device needs servicing or if there’s a suspicious security issue, analyzed data from the physical object could detect those signals and set processes in motion to fulfill complex events and preempt problems. All the monitoring and heavy lifting happens in the background. This prevents problems from becoming too big, and by removing that responsibility from the IT team, it frees up more time to spend on business-critical tasks. Bottom line: It saves time and boosts productivity.
We’re just at the beginning of what ambient technology can do in the workplace and in our lives. Regardless of industry or business size, advancements on this front are going to make offices more efficient, innovative, and productive. For this to happen, data and information need to be interconnected—and through these exchanges, enable machines to be responsive and even predictive to what workers need.