Amazon’s race to create the disappearing computer

For his last column in 2017, Walt Mossberg predicted that technology would fade into the background, and so-called “ambient computing” would become ubiquitous. Four years later, we are well on our way — but what exactly that term means for how computers will work and how we’ll live is still very much up in the air.

Many companies are working on some vision of ambient computing, but there’s nobody working harder to try to make the idea of ambient computing happen right now than Amazon’s head of hardware, Dave Limp. How he’s building that future today is a case study in how Big Tech confounds our preconceived notions of how progress works. We expected AI to look like HAL 9000. Instead, it looks a lot more like a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.

At Amazon’s yearly lollapalooza of gadget announcements, the company typically announces literally dozens of new Alexa-connected devices. Releasing so many different devices at such a heady clip makes a certain kind of sense: if computers are meant to be all around us, Amazon needs to produce as many different kinds of computers as possible.

This year, among the flood, Limp presented three devices that are paradigmatic of his vision for what he calls “ambient intelligence.” Subbing out the word “computer” for “intelligence” is a tell that he’s trying to change consumers’ thinking about how our digital lives will work in the future.

Today, however, these three devices are limited to pushing the boundaries of — and our comfort levels with — what we expect out of smart homes. Critically, all three take part in a new kind of computing platform that is unlike what we’re used to seeing from Big Tech. It’s diffuse, dispersed, and sometimes difficult to comprehend.

The big one is Astro, a two-wheeled robot with a screen for a face that can trundle around your home and serve as a watchdog, assisted living companion, and (of course) beer delivery vehicle. There’s also Amazon Glow, a new kind of videoconferencing gadget that projects a play surface on a table, so your grandkids are less likely to wander off during a call.

The Astro home robot
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

Finally, though it isn’t as weird, the new Echo Show 15 has the chance to make the idea of a true smart home family hub a reality by turning the Echo into a big digital picture frame that you can hang on your wall. That familiarity means it’s the one that’s likely to sell the most and therefore make the biggest impact.

Normally when we talk about gadgets, we talk about the operating systems on which they run. iPhones have iOS, Samsung phones have Android, Windows computers have, well, Windows. But the operating system on Amazon’s gadgets is almost beside the point — because the point is that the thing that actually matters is the Alexa ecosystem to which they’re connected. “I don’t really think about it as an operating system in the traditional sense,” Limp says.

“We think about that as a framework that we internally call ambient intelligence,” Limp says. “It’s not one individual system. It is a lot of systems running in the cloud” and on the so-called “edge,” aka the gadgets you actually have in your house. To say that there’s such a thing as a single Alexa platform isn’t really accurate, Limp argues. It’s an old way of thinking. “Behind the scenes, we have this whole layer of software, literally, hundreds of different services, some on the edge, some in the cloud,” he argues.

More than any other tech journalist, I’ve cracked jokes about Apple’s “What’s a computer?” ad — the one that asks us to recontextualize how a new generation thinks about the iPad. But with Amazon’s ambient intelligence platform, it’s no longer a joke. The computer is both in the cloud and on the device, and the actual computing happens here, there, and everywhere — and as a consumer, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to locate.

Some of it is and will continue to happen on “the edge.” Amazon promises to soon enable completely local processing of your voice on newer devices. Ring Alarm systems can be end-to-end encrypted, and the new one can be used without even sending the encrypted video to Amazon’s cloud. The Astro robot needs to do all of its navigation and recognition right on the device both for privacy and practical reasons.

But after that, it’s a messy melange of inputs, outputs, machine learning, and hunches (literally, Amazon calls its technology for predicting your commands “hunches”). Limp says that as many as one out of four actions taken by Alexa devices today are proactive — they’re done by Alexa based on what it has learned about your desires instead of in response to a specific command.

The new Amazon Echo Glow projector
Image: Amazon

In Alexa and its associated gadgets, Amazon has created a computing paradigm that is just as important as Windows, macOS, iOS, or Android. But because it’s dispersed among smart home gadgets and smart speakers instead of in monolithic screens that we engage with directly, it’s harder to pin down or describe.

“We’re trying to bring this ambient intelligence and AI to places that the industry seems to have abandoned,” Limp says. Rather than try to take on the rest of Big Tech directly, Amazon has always (Fire phone aside) tried to go to places where there’s less competition. In doing so, it has carved out a lead in the smart home and voice assistant space with the Alexa platform.

Also, in doing so, Amazon has courted controversy. The very nature of smart home gadgets means they’re going to have cameras, microphones, and other sensors. Every time Amazon announces a new kind of gadget, there’s an inevitable and often justified backlash of concern that it’s further eroding our privacy. Although the company has done lots of work to secure its devices and provide clear and strong protections, the backlash is unavoidable given the nature of the products.

Limp’s take is that a future where computers and sensors are everywhere is inevitable, so he’s trying to build them with safeguards in place. “I don’t imagine a world 10 years in our future where every house doesn’t have at least one robot,” he says. “I don’t anticipate a future where every house doesn’t have some sort of ambient intelligence in it. And so then the question is, what can you do to make sure that you get to that future, but you don’t end up with the Orwellian, dystopian version of that? For us, that means we have to kind of invent our way there.”

There is a kind of brazenness to some of Amazon’s gadgets. Last year, it announced (though it has yet to ship) a video drone that flies around inside your house. This year’s Astro robot is almost guaranteed to elicit a resounding “nope” from privacy advocates despite the company’s promises to safely handle sensitive data locally on the device.

“Talking about the industry as a whole, I think it’s not taking enough risk. Why wouldn’t you want a customer to try a robot if you can build it?” Limp asks. “Why wouldn’t you want to see a customer try a Glow and see if they do resonate with grandparents or a parent that’s on deployment or wherever they might be. I think our job is to invent like that.”

Here’s the bind Amazon has made for itself: it’s building an ambient computing platform that is diffuse and difficult to pin down, but the things we justifiably demand from our computing platforms — things like privacy, security, and accountability — require answers that are specific and clear. Although, on paper, Amazon almost always has answers to the biggest privacy questions, it’s the questions that we don’t know to ask that are often the most troubling.

The Amazon Echo Show 15
Image: Amazon

Platforms are also about helping other people build upon them. A platform should create an economy of success around it, where other companies are able to build businesses. Given the proliferation of smart home gadgets, Amazon has certainly done that.

But most platforms also help us make things. I take videos with my phone, make music on my tablet, write blogs on my laptop, and build out spreadsheets on my desktop. Amazon’s platform is, at its core, about convenience and consumption. Alexa sets timers and answers questions, but it also plays music. There’s home security, sure, but there are also Kindle books, Prime TV, Amazon Music, and Kids Plus content. There’s a difference between entertainment and creation.

Underlying all of this is the fact that Amazon is making this platform happen via the most Amazonian of mediums: retail. It’s building our ambient computing future with smart cameras, speakers, robots, picture frames, lightbulbs, and other gadgets. We have just started to figure out how to think about the societal implications of smartphones; now, we’ve got robots and teleconference board game systems for children. It’s all happening very fast.

Amazon’s ambient intelligence platform is succeeding because it is less constrained by the computing paradigms of the past. It has, without a doubt, made our homes smarter and our lives more convenient. The disappearing computer can do a lot for us; now, the next question is what we are going to be able to do with it.