Less Is More12

Digital Butlers


The best metaphor I can conceive of for a human-computer interface is that of a well-trained English butler. The "agent" answers the phone, recognizes the callers, disturbs you when appropriate, and may even tell a white lie on your behalf. The same agent is well trained in timing, versed in finding the opportune moments, and respectful of idiosyncrasies. People who know the butler enjoy considerable advantage over a total stranger. That is just fine.

Such human agents are available to very few people. A more widely played role of similar sorts is that of an office secretary. If you have somebody who knows you well and shares much of your information, that person can act on your behalf very effectively. If your secretary falls ill, it would make no difference if the temporary agency could send you Albert Einstein. This issue is not about IQ. It is shared knowledge and the practice of using it in your best interests.

The idea of building this kind of functionality into a computer until recently was a dream so far out of reach that the concept was not taken seriously. This is changing rapidly. Enough people now believe that such "interface agents" are buildable. For this reason, this backwater interest in intelligent agents has become the most fashionable topic of research in human-computer interface design. It has become obvious that people want to delegate more functions and prefer to directly manipulate computers less.

The idea is to build computer surrogates that possess a body of knowledge both about something (a process, a field of interest, a way of doing) and about you in relation to that something (your taste, your inclinations, your acquaintances). Namely, the computer should have dual expertise, like a cook, gardener, and chauffeur using their skills to fit your tastes and needs in food, planting, and driving. When you delegate those tasks it does not mean you do not like to prepare food, grow plants, or drive cars. It means you have the option to do those things when you wish, because you want to, not because you have to.

Likewise with a computer. I really have no interest whatsoever in logging into a system, going through protocols, and figuring out your Internet address. I just want to get my message through to you. Similarly, I do not want to be required to read thousands of bulletin boards to be sure I am not missing something. I want my interface agent to do those things.

Digital butlers will be numerous, living both in the network and by your side, both in the center and at the periphery of your own organization (large or small).

I tell people about the intelligent pager that I have and love: how it delivers in full sentences of perfect English only timely and relevant information, how it behaves so intelligently. The way it works is that only one human being has its number and all messages go through that person, who knows where I am, what is important, and whom I know (and their agent). The intelligence is in the head end of the system, not at the periphery, not in the pager itself.

But you should have intelligence at the receiving end as well. I was recently visited by the CEO of a large corporation and his assistant, who wore the CEO's pager and fed him its prompts at the most opportune moments. The assistant's functions of tact, timing, and discretion will eventually be built into the pager.

(p. 149)

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