AI is becoming so pervasive, it’s almost going to be floating invisibly in the air we breathe. That’s the concept of “ambient computing,” which sits at the convergence of AI, real-time streaming, mobility, and the Internet of Things.
Attention is a core cognitive process. Paying attention to our environments is what makes human beings truly intelligent. By the same token, attention is also the core capability of any IoT endpoint. By sensing real-time environmental data and (optionally) being able to respond to it with algorithmic intelligence, IoT-equipped material objects can free people from having to attend closely to many things that would otherwise occupy our minds.
Neuroscientists everywhere are prioritizing research into attentional mechanisms as a core feature of the long-sought artificial general intelligence. Research has shown that the brain relies on an organic feedback loop in which attention drives learning: Innate attention mechanisms help it learn the most relevant sensed dimensions in a physical environment, while trial-and-error exploration of those dimensions helps it learn the best strategies for focusing attention.
Sophisticated attention mechanisms are a key to boosting machine learning (ML) models’ ability to learn, adapt, and operate with greater autonomy. Tuning its algorithmic attention is fundamental to helping an ML model to more efficiently extract signal from noise in the data. Consequently, algorithmic approaches to attention are a core focus of AI researchers everywhere. As can be seen from a review of the recent research literature, AI experts are building sophisticated attention mechanisms into the following areas:
All of these advances are directly applicable to IoT-based ambient computing, in which intelligent objects will support AI-driven, environmentally contextualized conversational UIs, computer vision, interactive gaming, and generative tooling.
Attention-based learning will be fundamental for ambient computing, which relies on increasingly adaptive and autonomous sensor grids adapt at distinguishing signal from noise. These approaches will enable every smart speaker to attend to the distinction between voices and background sounds, between separate voices, between separate words and phrases uttered by any given voice, and between shifting intents and sentiments being expressed. Likewise, algorithmically adaptable attention will be essential for AI-powered things to rapidly distinguish objects in their visual, audio, tactile, olfactory, and other sensory fields. Swarming things -- such as drones -- won’t be able to function without the ability to fluidly shift their AI-guided focus to dynamically changing environments and the windows of threat and opportunity they present.
However, the IoT human-machine interface may be where attention mechanisms have their biggest impact on ambient computing. Here’s an excellent research paper from Sweden and the UK on the need for adaptive attention mechanisms to manage “interruptive IoT” scenarios. This refers to use cases in which the IoT devices share attention-related data and non-disruptively guide human users’ organic attention to help them achieve desired outcomes. In other words, if intelligent IoT devices can minimize the need for users to shift their gaze to a gadget’s screen or speak into its mic in order to achieve some end result, an attention algorithm can help AI-imbued devices to fade into the background.
It’s all about finding the right balance of organic and algorithmic attention in every IoT usage scenario. As the paper’s authors state, “We adopt the widespread assumption amongst context-aware system designers that by better identifying the right time, place, and modality, smart IoT environments could potentially transmit more information (i.e. notifications about the status of otherwise imperceivable processes) to human agents without significantly disturbing ongoing tasks.”
That’s the key toward driving ambient computing into the fabric of our interruptible lives while still keeping humans in the loop. It’s all about ensuring that our intelligent devices continue to serve our needs while mitigating the ever-present risks of human inattention in this crazy world.
James Kobielus is an independent tech industry analyst, consultant, and author. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia. View Full Bio