How ambient computing is moving us toward intelligent systems

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The idea of the internet of things (IoT) has existed for decades in the minds of science fiction writers. Today, the IoT is pulling up alongside cloud and big data as a rallying cry for looming, seismic IT shifts. Although rooted more in reality than hype, these shifts are waiting for simple, compelling scenarios to turn potential into business impact. Companies are exploring the IoT, but some only vaguely understand its full potential.

To realize that potential, organizations should look beyond physical “things” and the role of sensors, machines, and other devices as signals and actuators. Important developments no doubt, but only part of the puzzle. Innovation comes from bringing together the parts to do something of value differently—seeing, understanding, and reacting to the world around them on their own or alongside their human counterparts.

Ambient computing is about embracing this backdrop of sensing and potential action-taking with an ecosystem of things that can respond to what’s actually happening in the business—not just static, pre-defined workflows, control scripts, and operating procedures. That requires capabilities to:

  • Integrate information flow between varying types of devices from a wide range of global manufacturers with proprietary data and technologies
  • Perform analytics and management of the physical objects and low-level events to detect signals and predict impact
  • Orchestrate those signals and objects to fulfill complex events or end-to-end business processes
  • Secure and monitor the entire system of devices, connectivity, and information exchange

Ambient computing happens when this collection of capabilities is in place—elevating IoT beyond enabling and collecting information to using the fabric of devices and signals to do something for the business, shifting the focus from the novelty of connected and intelligent objects to business process and model transformation. It involves more than rolling out more complete and automated ways to collect information about real-world behavior. It also turns to historical and social data to detect patterns, predict behaviors, and drive improvements. Data disciplines are essential, including master data and core management practices that allow sharing and provide strategies for sensing and storing the torrent of new information coming from the newly connected landscape.

The final piece of the puzzle might be the most important: how to put the intelligent nodes and derived insights to work. Again, options vary. Centralized efforts seek to apply process management engines to automate sensing, decision making, and responses across the network. Another approach is decentralized automation, which embeds rules engines at the endpoints and allows individual nodes to take action.

In many cases, though, ambient computing is a sophisticated enabler of amplified intelligence in which applications or visualizations empower humans to act differently. The machine age may be upon us—decoupling our awareness of the world from mankind’s dependency on consciously observing and recording what is happening. But machine automation only sets the stage. Real impact, business or civic, will come from combining data and relevant sensors, things, and people so lives can be lived better, work can be performed differently, and the rules of competition can be rewired.

Read more in Tech Trends 2015: The fusion of business and IT.

This article was produced by Deloitte and not by the Quartz editorial staff.