Microsoft Mapping Course to a Jetsons-Style Future
REDMOND, Wash. — Meet Laura, the virtual personal assistant for those of us who cannot afford a human one.
Built by researchers at Microsoft, Laura appears as a talking head on a screen. You can speak to her and ask her to handle basic tasks like booking appointments for meetings or scheduling a flight.
More compelling, however, is Laura’s ability to make sophisticated decisions about the people in front of her, judging things like their attire, whether they seem impatient, their importance and their preferred times for appointments.
Instead of being a relatively dumb terminal, Laura represents a nuanced attempt to recreate the finer aspects of a relationship that can develop between an executive and an assistant over the course of many years.
“What we’re after is common sense about etiquette and what people want,” said Eric Horvitz, a researcher at Microsoft who specializes in machine learning.
Microsoft wants to put a Laura on the desk of every person who has ever dreamed of having a personal aide. Laura and other devices like her stand as Microsoft’s potential path for diversifying beyond the personal computer, sales of which are stagnating.
Microsoft and its longtime partner, Intel, have accelerated their exploration of new computing fields. Last week at its headquarters near Seattle, Microsoft showed off a host of software systems built to power futuristic games, medical devices, teaching tools and even smart elevators. And this week, Intel, the world’s largest chip maker, will elaborate on plans to extend its low-power Atom chip from laptops to cars, robots and home security systems.
Such a shift is only natural as people show that they want less, not more, from their computers.
Workers and consumers have moved away from zippy desktops over the last few years, and now even their interest in expensive laptops has started to wane.
The fastest-selling products in the PC market are netbooks, a flavor of cheap, compact laptops meant to handle the basic tasks like checking e-mail and perusing the Internet that dominate most people’s computing time.
Of course, Microsoft and Intel will remain married to the PC market for the foreseeable future. The vast majority of Microsoft’s $60 billion and Intel’s $38 billion in annual revenue stems from the sale of traditional computer products — a franchise so powerful that it is known in the industry by the nickname Wintel.
But with consumers no longer chasing after ever-faster PCs, the two companies have opted to redefine what the latest and greatest computer might look like.
“The PC is still very healthy, but it is not showing the type of growth that comes through these exciting new areas,” said Patrick P. Gelsinger, a senior vice president at Intel.
Whether the companies can really turn prototypes like Laura into real products remains to be seen. Microsoft and Intel both have a habit of talking up fantastic and ambitious visions of the future. In 2003, Microsoft famously predicted that we would soon all be wearing wristwatch computers known as Spot watches. Last year, the company quietly ended the project.
This time around, however, the underlying silicon technology may have caught up to where both companies hope to take computing.
For example, Laura requires a top-of-the-line chip with eight processor cores to handle all of the artificial intelligence and graphics work needed to give the system a somewhat lifelike appearance and function. Such a chip would normally sit inside a server in a company’s data center.
Intel is working to bring similar levels of processing power down to tiny chips that can fit into just about any device. Craig Mundie, the chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft, expects to see computing systems that are about 50 to 100 times more powerful than today’s systems by 2013.
Most important, the new chips will consume about the same power as current chips, making possible things like a virtual assistant with voice- and facial-recognition skills that are embedded into an office door.
“We think that in five years’ time, people will be able to use computers to do things that today are just not accessible to them,” Mr. Mundie said during a speech last week. “You might find essentially a medical doctor in a box, so to speak, in the form of your computer that could help you with basic, nonacute care, medical problems that today you can get no medical support for.”
With such technology in hand, Microsoft predicts a future filled with a vast array of devices much better equipped to deal with speech, artificial intelligence and the processing of huge databases.
To that point, Microsoft has developed a projection system that lets people manipulate large video images with their hands. Using this technology, Microsoft’s researchers projected an image of the known universe onto a homemade cardboard dome and then pinched and pulled at the picture to expand the Milky Way or traverse Jupiter’s surface.
“You could hook this up to your Xbox and have your own crazy gaming projection system,” said Andrew D. Wilson, a senior researcher at Microsoft. Teachers could use this type of technology as well to breathe new life into their subjects.
The technology behind Laura could cross over into a variety of fields. Mr. Horvitz predicted an elevator that senses when you are in the midst of a conversation and keeps its doors open until you are done talking.
As for Intel, the company has confirmed that more than 1,000 products are being designed for its coming Atom chip, which is aimed at nontraditional computing systems. Intel views this as a $10 billion potential market that will give rise to 15 billion brainy devices by 2015, Mr. Gelsinger said.The fortunes that Microsoft and Intel have amassed from their PC businesses afford them the rare opportunity to explore such a wide range of future products. And if their wildest dreams turn into realities, it is possible that consumers will one day associate the Wintel moniker more with brainy elevators than desktops.