More pleasant surprises, please

Software should recognize our patterns and make our lives easier

Traveling on vacation this week, I was pleasantly surprised a few times by technology. On its first jaunt far from home, my new cell phone made my watch obsolete by sensing time zones and automatically adapting. One night in a historic inn far from the world of 10-buck-a-night hotel broadband, an 802.11 signal came wafting in on the breeze. Moments such as these are gifts from a future in which technology just seems to do the right thing, quietly and unobtrusively.

But such moments are few and far between. As the novelist William Gibson famously said, "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed." Too often, our expectations are raised only to be shattered. Why, for example, does Expedia ask you to specify the number of children traveling with you, and even their ages, and then proceed to show you hotel rooms that can't accommodate the kids?

When I'm traveling on business, I get to bypass this nonsense. I just call up IDG Travel and talk to Bruce or Michael. These guys can hack through the plane/hotel/rental-car system like hot knives through butter. It's true they have access to privileged information, but I'm sure they could also make better use of public information than you or I. Their ability to recognize and exploit patterns is what makes them so effective.

From science fiction we've absorbed the idea that software systems would behave like Bruce and Michael. In real life that doesn't happen. Arguably it can't, because artificial intelligence is just a sci-fi fantasy. And arguably it shouldn't, because we want human expertise to remain a marketable commodity. But between the dumb software we use and the smart software we imagine lies an important middle ground waiting to be occupied.

Consider e-mail. It gets a bad rap at the moment, deservedly so. Almost all of the e-mail I picked up while traveling was malicious junk generated by the Sobig.F worm. For me this was a nonevent, because SpamAssassin was effective in this case. But if I'd had to delete messages by hand, as it seems many folks did, SpamBayes would have quickly recognized the pattern and automated the task.

In the wake of the Sobig.F flood came the predictable reactions: E-mail is polluted, broken, a dead medium. For certain purposes that's true. In our recent feature on spam I argued that IM is a better solution for real-time communication, as is RSS for bulk notification. But let's not kid ourselves. Factor out spam completely, as my current combination of filters has done for me, and you only do away with a problem. There remains a vast unexploited opportunity.

Thanks to the SpamBayes plug-in, my e-mail client does a great job of learning which messages I do or don't want to see. But it should do so much more! My work life is organized around groups and projects that form and evolve in fluid ways. E-mail folders and filters help me manage these activities. I want to be pleasantly surprised by software that notices when message patterns indicate the formation of a group or project, and volunteers to set up folders and filters for me. Likewise, I want to be pleasantly surprised by an RSS newsreader that notices how I save and organize items from my subscribed feeds. No breakthrough in artificial intelligence is needed to make this happen. We do the pattern recognition ourselves, quite naturally, as we process our information flows. If software paid more attention to what we attend to, and how, there could be more pleasant surprises.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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