Those of you familiar with the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey will remember HAL 9000, the computer that was an interesting combination of trusted servant and omnipotent master. Although portrayed as ludicrously futuristic, the day of the HAL-9000 computer is rapidly approaching. New technologies will allow you to work with your computer as if it were a trusted employee.
I don't mean to imply your next computer will be as mobile or intelligent as Data, the android from "Star Trek: The Next Generation." I mean your computer will understand your spoken words and visual cues. Its responses will be a combination of synthesized voice and visual presentation. The end result will appear human-like, even if the underlying program is artificially intelligent.
Humanizing your computer means giving it an interactive personality. The most common will be that of an efficient business assistant with a sprinkle of helpful mentor. Some users will want to add more personal traits--such as cheerfulness, playfulness and spunk--to lend to a more interesting workday.
This is not a new concept. Several years ago, Microsoft launched--and quickly shelved--Bob, which was a social interface to Windows. Microsoft tried the concept again with the Window's Office Assistant, the default of which is an interactive paper-clip symbol. You either like this feature and readily interact with it, or you hate it and have it banished forever.
Agents, Bots and Chatter Bots
Similar helpers, known as Agents or Bots, appear on the Internet. A popular example is the one that appears at www.askjeeves.com. This site can process any question phrased as you would ask it of a friend. The site responds with a list of questions it knows how to answer and, usually, will satisfy your query. The site scores high on accuracy but lacks personality. Other types of Bots include general or specific search Bots, knowledge-management Bots, news Bots, shopping Bots, telephony Bots and others.
A popular type of Bot is the Chatter Bot. Early Chatter Bots, like the famous Eliza program, were simulated psychiatrists that typed back your words along with random phrases. The result ranged from profound to nonsense. It was personality without accuracy. If the Chatter Bot concept is placed in a purely reactive role, it achieves accuracy by relying on pre-programmed responses.
The most common form of the modern reactive Chatter Bot is voice generation. You can hear an early use of this technology by calling the phone company's dial-in time number. This technology rapidly advanced from the need of blind individuals to "hear" books. Today, voice generation is a common feature in household appliances and gadgets.
When a Chatter Bot is mated to control an application or machinery, it becomes a social interface. Cellular telephones and voicemail have been early adopters of social interfaces. These devices use voice recognition to provide a natural and fluent experience. However, cultural and age differences create a wide variance in how words are pronounced. Thus, current telephone voice technologies restrict themselves to only recognize a few words to prevent recognition confusion.
Consumers can purchase advanced voice recognition for their computer. These systems train themselves to your voice and can recognize a large array of words--about 5,000. Even with all this software muscle, today's voice-recognition software is little more than a smart dictation system.
Soon you will experience voice recognition and generation integrated into a new social interface called an emotional interface. By interpreting the fluctuations and volume of your voice, programs will be able to automatically detect when you are thriving or struggling with a topic. The software can then provide assistance customized toward your learning style and speed.
These emotional systems might incorporate a small electronic camera so they can also read your facial expressions. This would help the computer software detect when your interest is fading or you look lost so the program can adjust accordingly. Current face-recognition software is limited to identity verification. Soon, new versions will utilize animated human-looking images, called Avatars, to represent the computer's personality as well as those of your online coworkers.
What About Self-Storage?
In the future, prospective customers will be able to describe their storage needs to an automated receptionist. They will aim their home computer's videocamera at items to be stored and receive an exact quote on the unit size that matches their needs, as well as recommended packing materials. Existing customers will be able to process payments and purchase additional services from home. These features are already in development. If you choose suppliers wisely, it will be your site that offers 24-hour customer service with no added labor costs.
Although the concept of these technologies may be a bit unsettling, time has a way of shifting our comfort level to adapt to greater technological advances. Just think about our current acceptance of videocameras within shopping malls and ATMs, and self-serve checkout lines at the grocery store. Some of these new technologies are a long way from the mainstream. But the combination of animation, natural-language processing, and voice recognition and synthesis will eventually enter your business life, resulting in user interfaces more natural than anything we have today.
Doug Carner is the vice president of marketing for QuikStor Security & Software, a Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based company specializing in security, software and management for the self-storage industry. For more information, call 800.321.1987; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; visit www.quikstor.com.