‘Your battery is now fully charged,' announced the laptop to its owner Donald A. Norman in a synthetic voice, with great enthusiasm and maybe even a hint of pride. For the record, humans are not at all unfamiliar with distractions and multitasking. ‘We are used to a complex life that gets constantly interrupted by computer’s attention-seeking requests, as much as we are familiar with procreation,’ laughs Ted Selker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab,
Humanity has been connected to approximately three billion networked telephones, computers, traffic lights and even fridges and picture frames since these things can facilitate our daily lives. That is why we do not typically turn off the phones, shut down the e-mail system, or close the office door even when we have a meeting coming or a stretch of concentrated work. We merely endure the consequences.
Countless research reports have confirmed that if people are unexpectedly interrupted, they may suffer a drop in work efficiency, and they are more likely to make mistakes. According to Robert G. Picard from the University of Missouri, it appears to build up the feeling of frustration cumulatively, and that stress response makes it difficult to focus again. It is. not solely about productivity and the pace of life. For some professionals like pilots, drivers, soldiers and doctors, loss of focus can be downright disastrous. 'If we could find a way to make our computers and phones realise the limits of human attention and memory, they may come off as more thoughtful and courteous,’ says Eric Horvitz of Microsoft Research. Horvitz, Selker and Picard are just a few of a small but prospering group of researchers who are attempting to make computers, phones, cars and other devices to function more like considerate colleagues instead of egocentric oafs.
To do this, the machines need new skills of three kinds: sensing, reasoning and communicating. First, a system must: sense or infer where its owner is and what he or she is doing. Next, it must weigh the value of the messages it wants to convey against the cost of the disruption. Then it has to. choose the best mode and time to .interject: Each of these pushes the limits of computer science and raises issues of privacy, complexity or reliability. Nevertheless, ‘Attentive’ Computing Systems, have started to make an appearance in the latest Volvos, and IBM has designed and developed a communications software called WebSphere that comes with an underlying sense of busyness. Microsoft has been conducting extensive in-house tests of a way more sophisticated system since 2003. In a couple of years, companies might manage to provide each office employee with a software version of the personal receptionist which is only available to comer-suite executives today.
However, the truth is that most people are not as busy as they claim to be, which explains why we can often stand interruptions from our inconsiderate electronic paraphernalia. To find out the extent to which such disruption may claim people’s daily time, an IBM Research team led by Jennifer Lai from Carnegie Mellon University studied ten managers, researchers and interns at the workplace. They had the subjects on videotape, and within every period of a specific time, they asked the subjects to evaluate their ‘interruptibility’. The time a worker spent in leave-me-alone state varied from individual to individual and day to day, and the percentage ranged from 10 to 51. Generally, the employees wished to work without interruption for roughly 1/3 of the time. Similarly, by studying Microsoft workers, Horvitz also came to the discovery that they ordinarily spend over 65 per cent of their day in a low-attention mode.
Obviously, today’s phones and computers are probably correct about two-thirds of time by assuming that their users are always available to answer a call, check an email, or click the ‘OK’ button on an alert box. But for the considerate systems to be functional and useful, their accuracy has to be above 65 in sending when their users are about to reach their cognitive irril-
Inspired by Horvitz’s work, Microsoft prototype Bestcom-Enhanced Telephony (Bestcom- ET) digs a bit deeper into every user’s computer to find out clues about what they are dealing with. As I said earlier, Microsoft launched an internal beta test of the system in mid-2003. Horvitz points out that by the end of last October, nearly 3,800 people had been relying on the system to field their incoming calls.
Horvitz is, in fact, a tester himself, and as we have our conversation in his office, Bestcom silently takes care of all the calls. Firstly, it checks if the caller is in his address book, the company directory, or the ‘recent call’ list. After triangulating all these resources at the same time, it attempts to figure out what their relationship is. The calls that get through are from family, supervisors and people he called earlier that day. Other callers will get a: message on their screens that say he cannot answer now because he is in a meeting, and will not be available until 3pm. The system will scan both Horvitz’s and the caller’s calendar to check if it can reschedule a callback at a time which works for both of them. Some callers will take that option, while others simply leave a voicemail. The same happens with e-mails. When Horvitz is not in his office, Bestcom automatically offers to transfer selected callers to his cellphone, unless his calendar implies that he is in a meeting.