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Are “Ambient Streams” the future of higher education?

How does the university adapt to the “New Media,” “Web 2.0,” Twitter, Facebook, IM’s, SMS’s, and everything that is the technology of today? Do we still use blackboards and chalk? (Actually, I do and think blackboards still have their place, but . . . .)

Over the years, I have had many conversations with creative technology thinkers, such as my dear friend, Robert Michael Murray about these questions. For some time, he has been saying that the university needs to get into sync with the way people interact in the 21st Century. Earlier today, I can across this post over at TechCrunch by Edo Segal, entitled Beyond Realtime Search: The Dawning Of Ambient Streams. Segal writes:

When trying to understand something potentially transformative, knowing what questions to ask is more than half the challenge. We are still in the early stages of these changes and don’t yet have the necessary metaphors to make the leap into the future. It is for that purpose that I want to suggest what I consider to be the building blocks of our next big evolutionary leap in how we use technology. The four main building blocks are:

  1. Realtime Web (Twitter, news flows, world events, and other information which relates to changes in the world)
  2. Published Information (sites, blogs, Wikipedia, etc.)
  3. Geolocation Data (your location and information layers related to it, including your past locations and that of your friends, as well as geo-tagged media)
  4. Social Communications (social graph updates, IMs, emails, text messages, and other forms of signal from your friends).

Before these building blocks can create an ambient stream which is not overwhelming, all of this data needs to pass through a filter. The Holy Grail is a filter which only serves up information which is relevant based on who you are, your social graph, what you or your friends are doing now, what you or friends have done before, and in context of other information you are consuming. It needs to be delivered wherever you are and on whatever device or display can deliver the ambient stream: mobile phone, laptop computer, TV, heads-up display in vehicle or inside your glasses. The future of how ambient streams might enter our world is illustrated with the following simplistic diagram:

Putting all of these building blocks together will be an industry-wide task. There are a relatively small number of people who have already managed to spend a lifetime thinking about this problem. It has bred several academic disciplines and many sci fi novels and films. These related fields include pervasive computing, everyware and the buzzword du jour augmented reality (AR). All of these technologies produce ambient streams. AR, in particular, (which is focused mostly on methods of how to render information visually) is capturing the imagination of innovators around the globe. The underling technologies that allow devices to marry data to physical locations continue to evolve at a fast pace, and with other disciplines jumping into the mix the magic is finally starting to happen.

One only needs look at a teenager today as they do their homework, watch TV, play a game, and chat while watching their Facebook stream to get a sense for humanity’s expanding affinity to consume ambient streams. Their young minds are constanty tuning and adapting to an age of hypertasking .A very useful metaphor is that humanity is constructing its own synthetic sixth sense. An ambient sense that perceives the context of your activity and augments your reality with related information and experiences. Increasingly, we will be sensing the world with this sixth sense and that will change the way we collectively experience the world. Going back to the point made earlier, the watershed event is when we will be experiencing this “ambient sense” without being in a retrieval mode (i.e. not when we go to the computer or our mobile device to find information but rather as a product of our activity, location, and profile in context with the events and information available to us in a wired world).

We will be seeing the first swells of this coming tsunami in the years to come, but for our children the ambient sense will play a bigger and bigger role as it slowly evolves and weaves itself into their consciousness much like Google search weaved itself into their memory functions. The challenges we face in terms of making real progress stems from the fact that the overarching goal is one that requires a multi-disciplinary approach across a myriad of data sets. While there are many companies executing in each of the quadrants few are in a position to access the full scope of data and therefore the ability to create the Holy Grail of filters is limited. This is where the world of walled gardens and deals with major search providers presents a challenge for progress. Many iterations and mistakes need to be made before we arrive at the right way to collate and filter all these different streams of data into an ambient sense. If only one or two companies are in a position to iterate, progress will be very slow and the probability of success diminished. For success, it is necessary to create an ambient sense that will manage to balance the level of interruption with insight and arrive at the true goal of any sufficiently advanced technology, which is to be transparent and taken for granted as part of the human experience. It may sound like science fiction, but there are engineers and entrepreneurs out there already trying to make it fact.

Is it possible in the age of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Apple for a startup to innovate across the entire stack to come up with this sixth sense? Chime in at #ambientstreams

So here is a question: Can universities serve as what Segal calls the Holy Grail? Now, please note, I am not suggesting that universities serve as the All Powerful Oz here, but rather that they might play this role in certain contexts for certain purposes. So the questions would be: Can universities play that role for their students? Can they play that role in various academic disciplines– such as physics, biology, medicine, law, social science, and the humanities? Can they play that role for the public?.  I’d love comments from people far more tech savvy than me– which would be most people!

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2 Comments

  • Chaz Perin says:

    Prof Arend –

    I’ve been following Google Wave (haven’t yet gotten the invite to beta test), but I think it is attempting to cover exactly this. While it very well may be primarily used to out-Facebook Facebook, I think it would be a massive upgrade compared to the listservs in use by many classes (at least while I was a student). It’d also be an interesting collaborative tool for you and your Human Rights peers (a venture I’d love to be a fly on the wall for). While it’d be too costly to do this in-house for Gtown or any other university that isn’t MIT, I’m sure being an early adapter wouldn’t hurt.

  • William "Chris" Yount says:

    I think the Holy Grail would have to be a technological process that calls up information from a persons database to present information to users based on what their databases show is pertinent.

    I think Universities already function in this manner, or they have the capability to, given the right situation. Professors have a vast store of knowledge and experience. As they learn more about their individual students, it allows them to determine the best and most appropriate information to supply, not only to fill in gaps in the students knowledge, but also to meet their personal interest needs. This is why it is so important to have close interaction with professors and students, since it takes a personal knowledge of the student to know what the gaps are and what the interests are.

    Ambient streams, given an effective and efficient filter system (Holy Grail), could provide a lot of that information without the need to “get to know the student”. This is a specialty of technology, reducing the human requirement of conversation and interactions. With a few minutes on a facebook page, you can learn political beliefs, recent activities, age, location (and through certain apps where the person has lived/traveled), and much more in just a few minutes. With the integration of Augmented Reality and Ambient Streams, that information will be available before your very eyes without having access any other program.

    Would this make for more efficient teachers? I think so. Universities could write software that filters out the greatest need for the class as a whole, and thus is truly producing a class with a more even foundation, and highlighting individual needs could also offer greater granularity.

    The great risk with AR and ambient streams is the reduction of human interaction in a personal way. I have friends that I have emailed for years without talking on the phone and I don’t realize what I’ve missed until I see them, shake their hands and look into their eyes. The struggle with these technologies will be to use to them to enhance our abilities without eliminating our humanity.

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Welcome! Who am I?



Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.