I Want a Desk Like a Super-Villain’s: Will Intelligent Agents Give Me One?

First published at the Huffington Post, 8/29/13. Every super-villain has a lair.

And in every super-villain’s lair, there is a gorgeous companion, a weird sidekick, and… the desk.

The sleek, perfectly uncluttered desk, from which our super-villain will rule the world. On it may be a sleek computer, the desktop of which is itself perfectly uncluttered, aside from the Go button for the orbiting death ray.

I want that desk. (I don’t need the death ray.)

Not just the desk, of course, but the fantasy it represents: power over all the little stuff that wants to clutter up most people’s lives — power enough to banish it.

The trouble is, the power required to banish the little stuff appears to be roughly the power it takes to destroy the world.* I’ve never seen anyone except super-villains with desks like that.

As for the rest of us, our lives are buried in little stuff. And the Internet is growing more of it at a geometrically increasing rate — tweets, posts, pins, podcasts, etc, etc, and etc-squared.

What to do?

Rephrase that. What would a super-villain do, what with the super-clean desk and all?

The answer: minions, of course. “Let my minions deal with it!”

And in fact that’s what we all may be able to do, soon. We’ll delegate our clutter to minions — not human ones, but a software version, also known as intelligent agents.

Intelligent agents are apps that are endowed with not just instructions, but goals, along with some amount of freedom — agency — in pursuing those goals.

To some extent, we have access to them now.

Here are some current examples:

1. Google Now. If information is the cloud, Google Now seeks to make it rain at just the right time and place. It promises to provide help “before you even ask.”

Among many other possibilities, that can include:

  • An alert that it’s time to leave for your restaurant reservation, after Google Now notices it on your calendar and calculates travel time from where you are now, allowing for traffic
  • A notification when a movie you’re anticipating hits local theaters, an opportunity to buy electronic tickets, and the display of those tickets as you and your date enter the theater.
  • Conversational interactions: Google Now will respond to natural language questions like “How’s the weather?” and commands like “Show me a picture of Bermuda.”

2. Apple’s SIRI and related services. Like Google, Apple is connecting your space and time information with personal preferences and more, and giving it all a natural language interface.

3. The Personal Shopping Assistant prototype by IBM Research. This app uses data, machine learning and augmented reality to speed and simplify a shopping trip. From an IBM blog post:

Have you ever found yourself in the supermarket staring at a shelf full of different cereal boxes, wishing someone could just point out the one with the best price, lowest sugar content, and the best reviews?…

When shoppers use their smart phone or tablet video camera to pan over products on the shelf, the application will instantly display recommendations and offers based on their specific preferences.

4. The Nuance persona. Nuance started out in speech recognition technology and now defines itself as a builder of intelligent systems (I was once the consulting creative director for speech tech firm BeVocal, which was acquired by Nuance in 2007). As Mark Hachman points out at PCWorld (“How Nuance is building a digital persona that loves you“), Nuance is focusing not just on data but on relationships:

While Apple and Google are attempting to create intelligent agents, Nuance is aiming to build an intelligent persona. Its emphasis is on “person,” and the technology is powered by the speech-recognition and natural-language tools that Nuance has bought or developed over the years.

“For me to be in the car, listening to the 49ers game, it’s halftime, I arrive home, I tell my TV to ‘put on the game’–that shouldn’t be that big of a deal,” says Gary Clayton, the chief creative officer at speech pioneer TellMe Networks, who holds the same position at Nuance. “This notion [of] where the intelligence comes from: It’s a system we can interact with in a conversational way. Because once you start interacting with the system in a conversational way, there’s almost an understanding that there’s a sentient being on the other end of the conversation. And the closer you can get to that point, the deeper the faith, and the stronger the relationship.”

As I’ve written earlier, I think intelligent agents are part of a coming form of marketing that I’m calling no-content marketing. They’ll spare us from much of the content we currently have to deal with in our lives, and in some cases will even conduct transactions on our behalf.

As they evolve, they promise to give even us non-super-villains our lives back.

As long as they don’t take over, of course.

*Maybe the two are related? Note to film students looking for thesis topics: “The Super-Villain as Extreme Neat Freak.”</code>

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