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Main Home >European Visions Home >Chapter Introductions > Chapter 5

European Visions for the Knowledge Age

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European Visions for the Knowledge Age

A Quest for New Horizons in the Information Society

Paul T Kidd (Ed)
ISBN 978-1-901864-08-3 (Paperback)
Price: See buy on-line link



Chapter 5
Human-centred Ambient Intelligence: Human-computer Relationships for the Knowledge Era
Paul T Kidd
This chapter deals with the topic of a different type of compute-based technology, different that is, to the one that people have become familiar with. The envisioned computer-based technology can be described as human-centred, that is to say, as opposed to the technology-centred technology that has become so ubiquitous in the early part of the 21st century.

The road to achieving such a human-centred technology is lined with many obstacles. But first, what is the starting point? Where does the journey begin?

Information and communication technologies are in the process of becoming a taken-for-granted part of everyday life. Steadily, digital technologies are being incorporated into the fabric of society: medical services, banking, retailing, manufacturing, transport, entertainment, education, and many other activities, have all become highly dependent on information and communication technologies. Without digital technologies, society would be unable to function in the way that people have become use to. The technologies have provided the means by which people have been able to increase their participation in many social activities. Moreover, businesses operate in ways that are only made possible through the use of information and communication technologies. In addition, professionals in all disciplines use computers as an integral part of their everyday activities. And most importantly, innovation in this field, and continued take-up of new technology, is a driver for economic growth and improvements in productivity: failure to ensure that this innovation and technology take-up is sustained will be very damaging for the economies of both the industrialised and the developing nations.

This diffusion of information and communication technologies into everyday objects is sometimes referred to as pervasive computing. The view of the computer as boxes on desks or in computer rooms is now very much outdated and misleading. Computers can be found just about everywhere, but their presence is not noticed, because the technologies are often embedded within items. And the information and communication technology content of many products, for example, cars, is continuing to increase. Thus, information and communication technologies have already started to move out from boxes, and are becoming an aspect of the built environment: they are part of products, services, and artefacts, and are adding intelligence to the surroundings, thus leading to the beginnings of so-called ambient intelligence.

Ambient intelligence is a European vision that places human beings at the centre of future development of the knowledge-based society and information and communication technologies. Computing devices will be embedded in many everyday objects, many of which will be networked together, and these technologies will be almost invisible to those who use them, and interfaces will be easy and natural to use. Ambient intelligence also demands contextual understanding on the part of computers, as they must in some way understand the user and the circumstances that apply at a particular point of interaction.

Ambient intelligence is a European perspective on how the trend towards pervasive computing can be shaped to Europe's advantage, and to the benefit of its businesses and citizens. It is a vision of what lies beyond the computer as boxes on desks or in computer rooms.

However the vision of ambient intelligence poses a number of concerns. Some are obvious and have already become important worries with the advent of the internet age: protection of privacy, creating trust, ensuring security, preventing the hijacking of the technologies for criminal purposes. Yet there is one matter that is perhaps less obvious, but which may prove to be a major roadblock.

A belief has been expressed [1] that ambient intelligence will not be widely accepted and used, unless users are deeply involved in the shaping of these technologies. Developers, it is proposed, need to do more than just bring new technologies to users to ask them what they think. A novel two-way relationship needs to be established between those that develop new technologies and those that use them. Users should be integrated into the processes of research and development, and new product creation and introduction. Users should be part of the innovation process, a source of ideas, and not just a resource to evaluate ideas generated by professionals. In effect what is being proposed is the development of a new approach to research and technology development, and the later activity of developing and introducing new commercial ambient intelligence products and services.

This new way of undertaking these activities can be summarised as design, by, with and for users. But is this enough to ensure acceptance? Possibly not! For no matter how much users are involved, a key issue is that, technologists bring to their work a set of values, and those values tend to devalue human roles and contributions, and emphasise the importance of technology as being in someway superior to humans. Put succinctly, computers are better than people are, and if people are involved in someway, then they represent a weakness in the design.

The above, of course, is an age old issue, but it is not one that has gone away. Over the years it has surfaced from time to time, and then slipped from view. But it is nevertheless still very important, and not a matter that has ever been satisfactorily resolved. The topic has been formalised with the Human Factors community under the name of allocation of functions (between man and machine). But this approach has been subject to significant criticism. The critique can be summarised by stating that allocation of functions does not correspond with much of the reality of technology systems design, and most importantly, ignores the central role of values in design. And it is in values, in the relationship between computers and people, where the solutions to the problems lie.

The knowledge era is heralded as a new age for humankind, implying some sort of transition from the past, to a new and different future, one based on the value of information and knowledge. The age that is being left behind, the industrial era, was, to a large extent, based on subjugation of human skills, knowledge, expertise, and purpose to the demands of a resource-intensive system of mass production. This led to a relationship between people and machines, where the needs of machines were predominant, and technology was designed, as far as possible, to eliminate the need for human intelligence, or to move this need to a select group of people within organisations, such as engineers and managers.

To move forward into the knowledge era, involves leaving behind the baggage of the industrial age. But how can this be done? What concepts are important and what fundamental principles apply?

Contextual understanding on the part of computers is probably the key to the creation of an ambient intelligence that serves people, rather than one that places people in a position of subservience to machines. But to achieve contextual understanding in a broad sense, allowing room for specific human characteristics such as a desire to play or to experiment, requires a new vision of the relationships between people and computers, one that could be termed an intelligent human-computer relationship, leading to a human-centred ambient intelligence. And the remainder of the chapter charts the way forward, starting with the topic called allocation of functions.


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