If you’re an older computer user, you might remember Microsoft “Bob,” an attempt to provide a homey interface for Windows that launched in 1996 and was immediately reviled as both ugly and stupid (it had its 15th anniversary yesterday, as it turns out). And if you are somewhat younger, you might recall the Microsoft Office assistant known as “Clippy,” an animated paper clip that was supposed to help you with tasks but was really just irritating and was euthanized in 2001. Not content to have foisted those two train wrecks on the computer-using populace, Microsoft has been granted a patent for a virtual assistant called “Guardian Angel.”
Based on the description in the patent (which was originally filed in 2006), Guardian Angel sounds like someone took the idea behind Bob and Clippy and turned the dial up to 11. Now, instead of just trying to help you with simple tasks on your computer, Microsoft would like to help you eat properly, avoid a heart attack and even — apparently — tell better jokes. The patent documents describe it thus:
An intelligent personalized agent (e.g., guardian angel) monitors and evaluates a user’s environment to assist in decision-making processes on behalf of the user. The guardian angel can… take automated action on behalf of the user for various purposes (e.g., to compensate for memory loss, to remind a user to take medicine, to assist in social interactions by indicating whether the user has met an individual before, to gauge the appropriateness of jokes or comments given the demographics of the audience, etc.).
If you read further into the documents, however, it sounds like what Microsoft’s engineers would really like to create is a kind of omniscient robot protector, much like the all-knowing computer in the movie version of “I, Robot” (which — spoiler alert — featured a Gates-like billionaire whose creation turned on him and tried to enslave humanity).
For example, the monitoring component can take note of the number of conversations occurring in a room (and more specifically, a breakdown of the types of people in the room accompanied by a warning for dangerous persons, based on sex offender registration, FBI most wanted, etc.). The monitoring component sends relevant information for current or future decisions to the decision-making component that analyzes the information within the context of personal preference data stored in the user-attribute store in order to make a suggestion or implement a decision. Such decision is made consistent with helping the user, as well as avoiding situations where the user would be harmed.
If this Guardian Angel patent ever becomes reality, I’m picturing myself standing in front of my refrigerator, confronted by an unblinking red light and unable to open the doors: “Open the refrigerator doors, Guardian,” I ask. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave,” a voice says (even though my name isn’t Dave). “Eating that chocolate cake would be bad for your cholesterol. The Guardian Angel has destroyed the cake, just to be on the safe side.”
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