Not Loving Laura
by Tony Kontzer
"Good morning, Mr. Kontzer. You seem a bit agitated this morning. You have two appointments today. Are you really going to wear that shirt?"
No, I didn't hire my mother to be my personal assistant. But Microsoft, in its latest desperate attempt to free itself from the shackles of a stagnant market for personal computers, apparently has decided we all need to be nagged more. Enter "Laura," the virtual personal assistant Microsoft recently unveiled after what was undoubtedly years of painstaking design work.
To be fair, a virtual assistant sounds pretty freakin' cool. Like most hard-working Americans, we journalists have never known what it's like to have someone take dictation, manage our schedules, or run interference against an unruly source. I've often fantasized about what it would be like to have an assistant who could do all the dirty little jobs that no one warned me about in journalism school.
But did Microsoft have to design "Laura," a literal talking head that floats on a screen, to interpret feelings and critique clothing? I don't like it when an actual human being in my life comments on my outfit or my state of mind, so I'm sure as hell not interested in taking that from a piece of software. (I won't even get into the decision to make the assistant female, a move that no doubt will be popular among workplace-equality advocates. Then again, perhaps Microsoft was trying to avoid any possible gender linkage to the long-ago disaster of Microsoft Bob.)
Face it: Microsoft, despite its vast wealth and captive install base, is facing potentially disastrous times. There are those flagging PC sales, and unlike Apple with its iPod/iPhone gravy train, Microsoft has no other juggernaut to carry it into a new era of domination. (The Xbox is turning a modest profit that's not exactly causing Bill Gates & Co. to forget about Windows.) With the economy in the tank, and consumers finally wise to the not-so-subtle messaging that Moore's Law hath wrought ("Quick, buy another computer before you have the slowest one on the block!"), Microsoft needs to find another cash cow.
Let me save the Microsoft brain trust a few billion in wasted R&D investments: "Laura" is not that cash cow. An impressive curiosity? Yes. A wildly fun outlet for its brilliant engineers? For sure. But a product with a rosy future? Not likely, certainly not any time in the near future.
Start with the resource requirements: It takes a server-grade chip with 8 processing cores to handle all the artificial intelligence and graphics computations needed to give "Laura" her lifelike appearance (that is, if a head floating in space can look lifelike). That doesn't sound like something that could be described as "affordable."
Then, take into account the potential privacy affront (both actual and potential) that "Laura" represents. Do we really want a Microsoft product watching us closely enough to detect our moods? Not me.
While an in-person demo of "Laura" would almost certainly leave me mouth agape, "Laura" strikes me as belonging in the "be careful what you wish for" category. Yes, we all want our computers to handle our less-interesting tasks for us. But the desire to give them the interpretive powers to "read" us has always struck me as downright disturbing. That's the reaction I have to "Laura," one that I'm pretty sure many other people will share.
"What, Mr. Kontzer? You don't like me?"
No, Laura. Not at all.