Sunday, October 16, 2005

Attention and life hacking

Clive Thompson at the New York Times has a long article, "Meet the Life Hackers", about attention and information overload.

I particularly enjoyed the interview with Eric Horvitz from Microsoft Research on his work on attention.
Eric Horvitz ... has been building networks equipped with artificial intelligence (A.I.) that carefully observes a computer user's behavior and then tries to predict that sweet spot - the moment when the user will be mentally free and ready to be interrupted.

Horvitz booted the system up to show me how it works. He pointed to a series of bubbles on his screen, each representing one way the machine observes Horvitz's behavior. For example, it measures how long he's been typing or reading e-mail messages; it notices how long he spends in one program before shifting to another ... The A.I. program will ... [also] eavesdrop on him with a microphone and ... a Webcam, to try and determine how busy he is, and whether he has company in his office.

In the early days of training Horvitz's A.I., you must clarify when you're most and least interruptible, so the machine can begin to pick up your personal patterns. But after a few days, the fun begins - because the machine takes over and, using what you've taught it, tries to predict your future behavior.

Horvitz clicked an onscreen icon for "Paul," an employee working on a laptop in a meeting room down the hall ... Paul, the A.I. program reported, was currently in between tasks - but it predicted that he would begin checking his e-mail within five minutes. Thus, Horvitz explained, right now would be a great time to e-mail him; you'd be likely to get a quick reply. If you wanted to pay him a visit, the program also predicted that - based on his previous patterns - Paul would be back in his office in 30 minutes.

[Another] program ... code-named Priorities, analyzes the content of your incoming e-mail messages and ranks them based on the urgency of the message and your relationship with the sender, then weighs that against how busy you are. Superurgent mail is delivered right away; everything else waits in a queue until you're no longer busy.

Perhaps if we gave artificial brains more control over our schedules, interruptions would actually decline - because A.I. doesn't panic. We humans are Pavlovian; even though we know we're just pumping ourselves full of stress, we can't help frantically checking our e-mail the instant the bell goes ding. But a machine can resist that temptation, because it thinks in statistics. It knows that only an extremely rare message is so important that we must read it right now.
I love it. These kinds of tools don't hide information from you; they only prioritize information, giving you a way to quickly focus. It's designed to help you pay attention to what matters right now and avoid frivolous interruptions.

If you want more details, Eric has several published papers on his work including "Models of Attention in Computing and Communication" and "Attention-Sensitive Alerting".

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