“Ambient intelligence” (AmI) refers to both a theoretical and a practical orientation of technology, involving the most innovative areas of the ICT sector. Recognized as a powerful trend, Ambient Intelligence has an increasing impact in several domains of our contemporary society, the so-called “knowledge society”. Let us look at the two words “ambient” and “intelligence”. Today we often use the attribute intelligent or smart referring to artifacts that show “a behavior”, have “a memory”, appear to take nontrivial “initiatives”. Take, for instance, a smartphone, which is able, when there is an incoming call, to put up on the screen the image of our correspondent. The “intelligence” in the words “Ambient Intelligence” precisely refers to those special embedded capabilities of certain things around us, capabilities that we are not aware of until they come into action. The word ambient, means “existing in the surrounding space” and signals that there is a particular diffused property of such a space. It has an essential charateristic, which is neither explicit nor obtrusive, but widely exploited by our Knowledge Society: the capability to transmit information without the need of wires (wireless communications). Like its underlying technologies, Ambient Intelligence is an expanding, evolving concept, projected far into the future.
AmI borrows its theoretical foundations from a variety of external disciplines, among which sociology, ergonomy, cognitive sciences and human computer interaction (HCI) have a relevant role. A definition of AmI in formal terms will be provided, but the simplest way to see it is as a set of objectives aimed at human progress, to be met progressively, that is, a vision.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Affordance: In a simplified way, it is a concept related to the properties of an object, where the object itself, because of its shape and design, suggests or “authorizes” the way it should be used. The interpretation of affordance, however, is not univocal and depends on the school of thought to which one makes reference. Since its introduction by the scholar J. J. Gibson, a major variation to the set of notions surrounding this concept is due to D. Norman (see before), who discussed it in the framework of industrial design and Human Computer Interaction.
HCI: Human computer interface or human computer interaction. Usually names a field of science that investigates all the aspects of the immaterial boundary in space that exists between a human user/actor and a device with some computing power, not necessarily a conventional computer. HCI is focusing more and more on the interface with handheld devices and more generally on interfaces involving all our senses and mind (not only visual interfaces, but auditory, tactile, perceptual, etc.).
RFID (also in RFID tag): Stands for radio frequency identification. It is the core technology of devices (tags) of very small size that can be stuck onto any kind of object and can transmit data to an RFID receiver located in the same area. RFID is estimated to be one of the most powerful technologies for the development of AmI, notwithstanding its potential risks related to privacy and security.
Knowledge Society: In an evolutionary view, it can be seen as the successor of a previous phase, the “information society” (IS), which in turn followed the “industrial society”. IS was so called because of the huge flow of information that was triggered by the advent of computers, data processing systems and communications. In the knowledge society, knowledge, and not mere information, is the most valuable asset. It is what is in the head of people (tacit knowledge) and what can materialize tangibly in the physical world, as print, or human exchanges (explicit knowledge). It is what drives the economy in the new millennium.
M-Learning: Means “mobile learning” and it refers to an increasingly adopted approach to learning that assumes the learner to be distant and mobile with respect to the teaching source and its resources. The supporting technologies comprise wireless communications and handheld, portable devices. The issues and challenges of m-learning are quite different from conventional e-learning, because of the special profile and requirements of the mobile user and his devices (interruptible connections, small screen estate, backward input facilities, etc.).
Usability: Usability is a fine and complex concept, quite beyond intuition. In simple terms, usability refers to the qualities of an object related to its use or, rather, it’s “ease-of-use”. Usability is also the science that studies the principles and design rules to be adopted in order to make usable things. Usability is notoriously a critical issue when dealing with the user interfaces of consumer electronics, computers, communication tools and the Web.