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.


2 Comments for "Not Loving Laura"

  • Walt March 07, 2009 10:19 pm

    Laura looks to be another great piece of innovation that Microsoft will release to help everyday people become more productive. It is refreshing to see ceratin companies still focused on R&D efforts that make our lives better, especially in these trying times. As for Wakullan, I am not sure which version of Office you are using, but your request on the "Recently Used File List" has been addressed. Check Word Options, Advanced, and the Display section. Users can retrieve up to 50 recent documents in Office 2007.

  • Wakullan March 06, 2009 3:33 pm

    Shades of Clippy and the little dog! Where did the Kill Clippy web site go to when we need help again? Somebody please go ahead and set up the web site to explain the steps necessary to turn off Laura on Day 1 and keep her turned off permanently! While I'm at it, I asked MS several times to extend the available size of the Recently Used File List or allow the user to do it--say, to 50 files or so. I hope they fix that 9-file shortage, or program Laura to help us fix it!

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