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Ambient computing is subtly—and powerfully—changing how we use technology

December 2, 2021, 8:00 PM UTC

Amazon’s Alexa isn’t afraid to speak up. Alexa initiates one of every four interactions between it and users. Ambient intelligence makes that possible, and Amazon is using it to make technology that proactively is there when needed and slips into the background when it isn’t. 

“When Alexa is at its best is when it’s proactive and correct,” said David Limp, senior vice president of devices at Amazon, at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif. on Wednesday. “You have to get both those right.”

Think of it like an analog wall clock, he said. It’s great when you need it, and you don’t notice it when you don’t. Television’s advent was a paradigm shift for Limp’s parents, but normal for him as a kid, Limp said. Ambient intelligence is becoming the new paradigm for innovation. 

“It is and will be our new normal,” he said. “My kids have never really grown up in a house where they don’t talk to it.”

Cloud computing also gives more flexibility and allows for frequent updates as technology progresses, he noted. 

Limp pointed to several examples around his house to demonstrate the subtle but significant role ambient intelligence can play in people’s everyday lives.

In the kitchen, Limp, a self-proclaimed avid cook, might be carrying three kitchen timers—each one set for a different dish. 

“Now, Alexa does that for me,” he said. “I just say, ‘Set a banana cream pie timer,’ and that goes. And ‘Set a cherry pie timer,’ and that goes.”

The timers fade into the background, until Alexa alerts him when a dish is ready, he said. 

His family loves Christmas trees and has several around their home. The lights on each tree are connected to a remote timer to turn on and off when scheduled. 

Before anyone in the family programmed a schedule, Alexa proactively asked if they wanted it to schedule the lights to turn off at 10 p.m., Limp said. Now, “you just go up to bed and the lights all turn off and you don’t have to think about anything—just because Alexa had this hunch, it’s magical.”

The company is working on making Alexa even more subtle, yet significant. Among the features in development is enabling the device to recognize shifts in a user’s voice to minimize the need to say ‘Alexa’ to engage it. 

The goal is to make it more conversational.

“I don’t have to say ‘Jonathan’ every time I refer to you, you know who I’m talking to,” he said to interviewer and Fortune senior writer Jonathan Vanian.

Years are left to make the technology ready for the market, but, Limp said, he is confident that speed and power of artificial intelligence will make enable effectively conversational devices in the “not so distance future.”

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