Put Mom through, but not that marketing VP!

Do you want an e-mail-reading software agent deciding who can interrupt you?

By Kaitlin Quistgaard
July 18, 2000 11:21PM (UTC)
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When you're swamped with more e-mail than you can possibly read, what do you open: a silly poem from your new love or a message from your boss brimming with details about the meeting you have in one hour? Do you think a note from your mother is important enough to interrupt your work on that white paper?

These are the kinds of questions Microsoft could make us consider with its "Attentional User Interface," which John Markoff wrote about in the New York Times on Monday. The goal of this artificial intelligence software, which Markoff says is "at the heart" of Microsoft's new .Net strategy, is to cut down on information overload; a machine will screen your messages and only interrupt you if it deems the e-mail -- or its sender -- worthy of your time. That way, you can keep your head down and work without distraction!


Sure, e-mail overload is ugly, but do we really want to entrust decisions about who can reach us to an intelligent agent? I assume we'd have to set up a profile to teach this agent who matters to us, and then head to the shrink's office to come to work through the guilt after ranking the priority-level of messages from our colleagues, our friends, our family. Sorry Mom, that hot stock tip beats you hands down!

Would you have to constantly reset your profile, letting it know, for instance, that you're going away with Vicki this weekend and want her messages to be given high priority for just this week as you coordinate plans? And how would it know not to send on those bad jokes from your co-worker while you're waiting for him to send you the latest sales figures?

The Times reports that Microsoft is already testing a program that decides when a message is important enough to interrupt you, and another program that reads your messages and schedules requests for meetings. Imagine opening your calendar only to find whole days tentatively scheduled by people eager to tell you all about their sales-force automation software or marketing service solutions.


You ought to go ahead and tell your boss that when you're busy you only read messages from her marked "urgent," but look at anything your girlfriend sends you; she's bound to find out just as soon as employee monitoring software catches up with the Attentional User Interface. And soon you might expect a flood of forged e-mail; spammers will no doubt buy your personal profile data from some teenage hacker who cracked the database and then pretend to be just the people you want to hear from.

Personally, I could live without an intelligent agent who would never let me know that an old friend was in town for just one day, because I hadn't heard from her in years and didn't think to put her on my priority list. I especially don't want one that comes in the guise of some stupid animated stapler or tape dispenser or whatever Microsoft might deem an appropriate companion to Mister Paperclip. (Yes, the Attentional User Interface technology is being developed by the same Microsoft team that brought us the Office Assistant.)

I'm as overwhelmed as anyone by the zillions of messages bombarding me each day, but I don't quite see how this new software will better my predicament. An agent is not going to make the messages go away; it's just going to make it easier to avoid looking at the stuff you know is there but don't want to deal with. The invention of e-mail opened us up to direct communication with anyone who could find us -- and that's proving to be a bit more than we bargained for. But I don't see how hiding behind another layer of technology is going to save us from each other.

Kaitlin Quistgaard

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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