Digital Fables and Foibles17

Digital Persona

One of the reasons that talking cars have been unpopular is that they've had less personality than a seahorse.

In general, our opinion of a computer's personality is derived from all the things it does badly. On occasion, the reverse may happen. One time I doubled over laughing when my spell-check program looked at my dyslexic-style typo aslo and proudly suggested that asshole was the correct spelling.

Little by little, computers are taking on personalities. A small but very old example is Hayes Corporation's communications software package, Smartcom, which displays a little telephone with a face. The two eyes look at a list of each step in the connection process and, as the computer completes one step and moves to the next, the eyes follow down the list. The face smiles at the end if the handshaking has been successful, and frowns if it has not.

This is not as frivolous as it sounds. The persona of a machine makes it fun, relaxing, usable, friendly, and less "mechanical" in spirit. Breaking in a new personal computer will become more like house-training a puppy. You will be able to purchase personality modules that include the behavior and style of living of fictitious characters. You will be able to buy a Larry King personality for your newspaper interface. Kids might wish to surf the Net with Dr. Seuss.

I am not suggesting that you be interrupted with knock-knock jokes in the middle of writing an important message. But I am suggesting that the style of interaction can be much richer than the simple clicking sounds, tin voices, or repetitious flashes of error messages. We will see systems with humor, systems that nudge and prod, even ones that are as stern and disciplinarian as a Bavarian nanny.

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