The Perfect Servant

What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others?
It’s the gift of anticipation.
And I'm a good servant; I'm better than good, I'm the best; I'm the perfect servant. I know when they'll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they'll be tired, and the bed is turned down.
I know it before they know it themselves.

Mrs. Wilson, Gosford Park, 2001

The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed

William Gibson

Ambients: An Introduction

This is an era of perfect service, distributed.

Gosford Park is Julian Fellowes’ wry predecessor to Downton Abbey, an upstairs-downstairs murder mystery set on a 1930s English country estate. Mrs. Wilson is the head housekeeper who is barely noticeable yet critical to the lives and needs of Gosford Park’s owners, guests, and fellow servants.

In Gosford Park, only the wealthy can afford a servant as perfect as Mrs. Wilson. In our era, we’ll all have access to versions of Mrs Wilson: ambient digital apps distributed through our environment. These ambients will also have the gift of anticipation. They too will know our need before we know of it ourselves.

What is an ambient?

A digital process-- an app-- in our local environment that requires no user attention to fulfill a need.

Ambients are already here. A basic thermostat is a primitive ambient. New technologies expand the range and capability of these ambients so that they start to anticipate customer need. Nest and Ecobee thermostats are ambients with anticipation. Apple’s watch recognizes when we’ve fallen and anticipates we’ll need help. Its ECG anticipates heart conditions. Face++ in China makes payments and replaces train tickets. These ambients aren’t Mrs. Wilson, not yet. And they aren’t evenly distributed, not quite yet.

Ambient apps operate on a network of sensors, microprocessors, and actuators. Most of these nodes will be personal and proximate. Ambients may be completely automated, such as a smart thermostat, while others may include people in the process, such as a hotel employee with an AR earpiece, or a doctor reading Apple’s ECG. Many ambients will retain the human touch, particularly at the point of service.

Like Mrs. Wilson, ambients will have an apprenticeship. At first, we’ll instruct them with simple gestures, gazes, and commands which the app-in-training will understand and remember. Eventually the ambients will perform without our attention. We will forget they exist.

In implementation, ambients mix common technologies-- IoT sensors, wifi, bluetooth, NFC, mobile, AR, and ML--  to fulfill needs without consuming our attention. In contrast, immersive processes like VR remix the same technologies to consume as much of our attention as possible. Ambients lie at the other end of the spectrum from apps of attention-- it’s the same technologies harnessed to different ends, driven by different business models, and defined by different metrics.


Ambients can be divided into two archetypes: evolutionary and revolutionary.

Evolutionary ambients substitute for services we’ve thought of already but have been too expensive to mass produce. Think of super-capable Mrs. Wilsons. Smart thermostats. Clever door locks with facial recognition. These ambients distribute William Gibson’s future throughout the present.

Revolutionary ambients inject world-class expertise into our lives to anticipate needs beyond our reckoning. Apple’s ECG ambient is a harbinger. Such ambients detect signals beyond the range of our senses, apply world-class expertise to recognize subtle patterns, and coordinate remote actors to help us. Not even a highly-trained Mrs. Wilson had such capabilities. These are new services offering new value.

Ambient Consumers

For consumers, ambients free our attention from mundane, repeatable, and predictable tasks. Revolutionary ambients will help us make better decisions and even save our lives.

From a broader cultural, social, and political perspective, ambients offer an antidote to attention fatigue. Where apps of attention bind and addict our conscious thought, ambients liberate it. They provide us with the the time and freedom to focus on more important things.

Business ambients

Businesses must build ambients to gain strategic advantage in a world of finite customer attention. Apps that require less attention to deliver services and value will win and retain more customers.

Exit a zero-sum strategy

Limited time creates a zero-sum competition for consumer attention. Attention to one task comes at the expense of another, and time in one app is less in another. This competition is intense and dominated by a few social, entertainment, and communications platforms. It is a roadblock for many digital services and innovations-- we have wonderful app with wonderful value propositions, but how do we get customers to use it? In delivering digital services, many businesses must win a share of attention from Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix, and only then can they compete with their traditional sector rivals.

Ambients are not zero-sum. They are not time-limited. They do not compete with non-sector behemoths for attention. They do not displace each other, unless both provision the same need at the same time and place. Smart thermostats co-exist with Apple’s ECG, and can also co-exist even in the same house. As ambients learn to anticipate, they require less and less attention to provide better and better service. Ambients offer new options to engage digital technologies while exiting a competition that, for most, offers diminishing returns.

Build new experiences

The anticipation that powers ambients also builds other systemic business advantages.

The first is the chance to redefine consumer perception. Ambients remove the friction of uncertainty so that what remains is experience, the sense of a need fulfilled. I’m hungry-- the food is ready. I’m tired-- the bed is turned down. Ambient technologies have the capability to transform a service into an experience, to remove so much friction that the need itself is redefined.

The second is operational. To anticipate is to predict, and predictability enables optimization. Ambients must predict the most important need of all, that of the end customer. Predict that need and the entire business-- the people, the supply chain, the infrastructure, the organization structure -- can be re-optimized to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

The third is that ambients change how customers decide. In effect, ambients aggregate many small decisions and actions into a single decision of much higher value undertaken with less frequency. Once hired, Mrs Wilson handles a myriad of details, perfectly, so her employer doesn’t have to. But hiring Mrs Wilson? That’s a very significant decision, one that wraps many lesser ones and may last decades. It presents businesses with new opportunities to create defensible market positions.

The fourth is that revolutionary ambients create new revenues in new markets. Consider Apple’s ECG and other yet-to-be invented health-oriented wearables. Or self-driving cars. Ambients allow businesses to broaden the scope of how a need is defined and how it is fulfilled.  It is an opportunity to introduce and capture new revenue streams. The possibilities are near limitless-- or at least, they are not limited by attention.

The Future: Apps of experience

This post posits that we’re entering an era where digital technologies will be applied to save time, tedium, effort, and lives without consuming more and more of our attention. It proposes that apps can enhance our experiences without gamifying everything, without intensifying social anxiety, and without creating psychological addictions. That apps can deliver immense value with minimal engagement. That there’s an antidote to apps of attention. That digital technologies can liberate our senses and broaden our experiences.

Walt Mossberg’s the disappearing computer

A good overview of ambient intelligence and its future impact

A TechCrunch overview of ambient intelligence from 2016

An interesting blog post about why ML will be in tiny devices and sensors

Google’s Edge TPU doing exactly that, adding ML to embedded devices

About the post

This blog post is the first in a series examining the rising tide of ambients and the emerging opportunities and revenues as well as the risks and costs, primarily in the business sphere.

These posts draw from my personal ongoing experience building an ambient app, from Rocket Insights' work designing and developing apps with these technologies, and from observing activities and changes in the market.