From Personal Computer to Personal Assistant
(Department of Computer Science, University of
Auckland, New Zealand)
(Institute for Applied Computer Science I,
University of Hagen, Germany)
Much of the confusion that surrounds electronic personal assistants
arises from the open-ended complexity of their development. In this
paper we categorise some of their more common uses before suggesting
several thought-provoking extensions.
Electronic assistants, electronic agents, message
pads, searches, prediction, programming by example, voice commands.
Evolution in human-computer interface design has brought us a long way
from the days when computers were all but dictators, when users obeyed
enigmatic 'rules' or risked ignominious 'crashes'! Years of
research and many trials involving users (willingly and unwillingly)
have steadily improved computer interfaces to the point where today's
operators are much more in control. However we believe that the next
few years will see another quiet revolution as the computer becomes
more of a versatile supportive ally - a true Personal Assistant (PA
The idea of an electronic assistant has already been promoted with
much hype by major computer companies. But the impression often given
is that computers will eventually dominate our lives, relaying frantic
messages between offices and homes, frustrating even our rest and
relaxation. This is certainly not our vision: we look to the computer
to help us, not discombobulate us.
A PA, as we define it, is not to be confused with the devices that
several companies are developing as 'personal digital assistants' or
'message pads' (see Section 12). Those are still
extremely limited in the applications they support. We believe that a
PA system should - and can - do a great deal more.
Because application programs are providing constantly better
interfaces, the exact nature of an electronic personal assistant is
becoming blurred. Some of its functions may be controlled best by a
continuous background processor. Others may be delegated to various
applications. However, just as there is a move towards 'universal
documents' that allow text, graphics, spreadsheet and database editing
all in the same document, we should also expect a PA to help in
activities ranging from simple wordprocessing tasks to scientific
research. A PA should support our work in ALL areas of computing.
In this paper we consider the assistance we might expect from a PA in
a few everyday activities.
2 Writing Documents
There are probably countless ways in which a PA can aid us in the
exacting labour of writing documents. Certainly, as we shall see in
Section 7, PAs will
relieve us of a large
amount of repetitive editing by making predictions based on our
personal work patterns. They will do a great deal more than this,
2.1 Making Literature Searches
Making a literature search is a frequent necessity, a time-consuming,
exacting chore, yet vital whether our need is to find information or
to check our work. Additional electronic assistance with literature
searches would be a great relief. In particular, we should be able to
vet our work much more efficiently than is currently possible. At the
very least, a PA will help us set up and manage a filter system so
that our searches are as effective as possible. This is particularly
important when searching in hypermedia1 systems (see
Section 6.3). The PA will 'learn' what filters
we prefer to have set under various conditions and apply them,
[KM94]. It will provide intelligent cross-links so that
better use can be made of huge databases. Obviously everything we
write should be open to verification. One such system, 'Ways 2',
produced by the Swiss researcher Keller, has been marketed by Vobis in
Germany with considerable success. In a PA system, data in
wordprocessing text will be checked against data in our spreadsheets
and databases. Running as a background processor, it can make
continuous searches for relevant references, aiding us in the
verification of both our own work and the reference material we are
reading (see Section 6). Having such checking done
automatically, or semi-automatically, is possibly the only way of
ensuring that the increasing amount of archived work taken to be
authoritative is at least relatively free of errors.
2.2 Improving Spelling Checkers and Grammar Checkers
Spelling and grammar checkers are often inefficient and cumbrous.
Most spelling checkers are not even context driven; grammar checkers
are clumsy, throwing up too many red herrings. Users should be able
to tailor grammar checkers to their personal preferences. An
intelligent editor should also be able to 'learn' rules of style
appropriate to the particular type of document being edited - such as
appropriate levels of word difficulty, or suitable sentence length.
The system should be flexible enough to allow the user a choice
between simultaneous checking and checking only on a File Save or Quit
Programs such as these need to be able to 'learn' from their
'mistakes'. For example, in a maths paper the second occurrence of
the word 'group' probably should not be replaced by 'collection'!
If a user has to override the 'second occurrence', an intelligent
editor will query whether it is a technical term and act accordingly.
We need to be able to refer to a whole range of dictionaries - maybe
at just the click of a button. Using techniques such as those
described in Section 6, we look forward to much
better success rates in our searches.
An interesting application applies to natural language translation.
Obviously we are not referring to full natural language translation -
a complex and subtle specialty still struggling for success. But
word-for-word translations are practical and this opens up several
rather thought-provoking possibilities. For example, a researcher
trying to read foreign journal articles with only a smattering of the
language would be greatly helped by a handy translation option.
correspondents restrict their sentences to grammatically
simple ones, translation programs will have a better success rate.
The qualified success of existing style-checking programs suggests
that certain types of documents may be amenable to automatic rewriting
in simplified words and phrases - a facility of great use to new
immigrants, for example.
3 Reading Documents
Browsing electronic text consumes so much of our time that all
personalised assistance with it will be valuable. As software systems
become daily more complex, the problems associated with training
operators in their efficient use multiply exponentially. Since users
have neither time nor motivation to wade through extensive manuals,
many firms are applying the principle of 'just-in-time learning'.
This will become more effective when employees have their own PA to
control the Help systems. The PA will be able to take into account
the user's previous experience - or lack of it!
Many people find reading from the screen more tiring than reading
print, particularly when windows are densely packed with text. The
displayed text is either too small for comfort or too clumsily large.
One solution may be to indicate the particular line we are reading by
moving the cursor up and down manually (or by methods mentioned in
Section 8) so that the editor can enlarge it. It may
also be desirable that a line or two above or below the current line
be enlarged to some degree as well. This will obviously be dependent
on personal preferences, but each user should be able to individually
'train' their text windows.
Since reading is so much faster than writing, any reference system
that is provided needs to be very efficient for us not to feel
unnecessarily held up by it. Hence, though facilities for referencing
and checking are just as vital for reading as for writing, they will
have to be uninhibiting to be really useful. Perhaps in 'Browse
mode' a single click on a word could initiate a dictionary look-up or
a reference check. Each person will decide which dictionaries or
databases are to be filtered and used.
Yet another necessary feature for most applications is the presence of
date computation routines. For example, if I read that a colleague is
arriving on 18th May, my immediate question will probably be 'What
day of the week is that?' I should be able to click on the '18' and
'May' and have a formula (such as Snell's) calculate the day - given
any particular year. Or maybe I need to know what date Easter falls
on. Even more important, when making travel arrangements I must know
which days are public holidays in the countries I am visiting, so that
I can either avoid them or make sure I see any special festivities.
We all agree that there must be better ways of managing e-mail than
keeping our names off mailing lists [Den82]. M.I.T. has
made considerable progress with its Information Lens and Object Lens
projects [MGT 87] [Rob91]. Certainly we should
be able to set up our own preferential filtering systems so that a PA,
perhaps working as a background processor, can search all incoming
mail for names and keywords. It will search the body of each item, as
well as the
subject line, and classify the mail according to our own
prescriptions, [KAF 94]. Furthermore, we do need additional
options such as ranking and grouping by author. Answering mail from
your boss may be more urgent than attending to personal matters; and
if he has mailed more than one item, it is important that they appear
together so that we do not waste time answering the first item only to
find that it was superseded by a later item!
As more and more correspondence is sent by e-mail, we are looking
forward to additional electronic assistance with all the chores
associated with daily avalanches of mail. A personal assistant will
serve us by keeping address lists up to date. It will assist us in
writing form-letters (see Section 8) and help with
addresses. It can manage certain housekeeping tasks such as archiving
necessary information before deleting messages. Notices in template
format can enable the system to use the advertised dates to generate
expiry dates - these may, of course, be overridden by the user.
Ideally the user should also be able to define what is to be done with
the notice once the expiry date has passed: delete it, or place it in
a Past Events list to be maintained by the system. This list will be
invaluable for compiling such things as end-of-year reports, although
decisions will have to be made on how to maintain it. E-mail must
also support structured discussions and systematic collaboration
between two or more participants, i.e., conferencing. Furthermore, we
should have the option of attaching notes to individual letters in
group dispatches. In fact, as information proliferates in all
systems, the ability to annotate at all levels of the system becomes
It is intriguing to ponder the consequences of having e-mail answered
automatically. For example, we may wish to generate replies that
indicate we are unavailable. Of course we would avoid being naive and
publicising to all and sundry that a house or office is unattended and
hence is a good burglary risk! We could, however, have different
responses to different people. Acquaintances could be informed that I
am at a meeting or that I am very busy - whereas close friends are
told that I am really away at the beach!
5 Intelligent Calendars
Electronic diaries will become much more useful when they are more
widely linked into electronic mail systems. Calendars should also be
capable of generating mail for us - either mail to ourselves or mail
to others. On a personal level, they should be able to send us
reminder notices that contain much more than just bald statements of
events and dates. Perhaps, when we are prompted that next week is an
important anniversary, we also need to be reminded that last year's
'bright idea' for a gift wasn't a success!
On a more workaday note, an intelligent PA will be able to set up
appointments for us. Incoming e-mail about meetings will be searched,
our calendar checked and updated, and outgoing e-mail messages
generated. The PA system should be intelligent enough to be capable
of adaptive behaviour. Conceivably, it could even 'learn' when one
person in a group is being unreasonably difficult about the times they
are available and it could take a 'tough' negotiating line! On the
other hand, although I may wish my system to negotiate for me I may
also not want all my timetable to be known!
The logical extension of this is, of course, that we shall eventually
have networks of PAs communicating with each other and the user will,
at best, only be
required to approve the final result.
6 Information Retrieval
Electronic journals such as J.UCS (Journal of Universal Computer
Science) have significant advantages over traditional and existing
electronic journals [CMS94], [JUCS94], [MS95]. Since it is based on Hyper-G, [KAF 94],
its structure lends itself to user-controlled filtering and automatic
notification of new material and updates - all of which are necessary
components of any PA.
To make the best use of resources such as JUCS [CMS94], [JUCS94], researchers need more assistance in searching and
checking documents - their own and other people's. This is becoming
critically important as daily so much highly questionable data is
being quoted as fact.
There are several important requirements to be met by search programs,
and we list just a few:
- Appropriate use must be
made of filters (see Section 2.1).
system should help the user by prompting for alternatives. For
example, a search for 'kiwi' could well generate the prompt, 'Bird, person or fruit?'
- We look to better hit rates in searches. An
intelligent search program will tailor its algorithms to fit the type
of document being searched, deducing probable error types. For
example, when text is entered from the keyboard it will look for
transposed characters. Scanned documents on the other hand commonly
produce different types of errors. Since scanning produces only a
simple bit map, an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) program must be
used to convert the bit map into text. Unfortunately, even the best
OCR programs introduce new errors into the scanned text such as 'g's
being confused with 'q's [COD90]. Here again we look to
increasingly intelligent search algorithms to improve translations.
We also look forward to a much better hit rate for words with multiple
errors by using improvements that fuzzy1 search techniques seem likely
to achieve [BYG92], [WM92].
- The system
should be able to make fuzzy searches based on semantic nets instead
of just lists of synonyms. A search for 'air' could lead on to
'gas', 'oxygen', etc.
- If a search is not successful then the
system should be capable of making alternative suggestions - it is
frustrating when unsuccessful searches leave us no better off.
- Certainly we would like to have phonetic searches, as well as the
option of searching dictionaries that include inflected forms of
words, abbreviations, accents - and entire foreign languages.
- Obviously intelligent fuzzy searches should not be restricted to just
text files. We should be able to efficiently search file names,
directory lists, program names, and so on.
Above all, such a system must be easy to use. To take a trivial
example, if I read that the Sun is 20% helium and 80% hydrogen I
will check the figures if and only if it can be quickly done - perhaps
with PA assistance, on just the click of a mouse.
6.2 Retrieving Information from Libraries
A big step forward for all researchers will be a PA giving us easier
access to library information. We believe that in the foreseeable
future it will become standard practice for librarians to insert the
table of contents and/or a brief summary into the hypermedia database
so that researchers can rapidly access the new information. This much
at least can be done without infringing copyright laws. With a system
such as this, a PA can constantly check all new books and journals,
and using our own categorisation system, notify us of those that are
The application PC-Bibliothek (PC-Library) is a recent development
from Graz University of Technology for PCs running Windows [MMS94]. PC-Bibliothek's attractive and easy-to-use
graphical interfaces, coupled with powerful search algorithms,
highlight the benefits to be enjoyed once complete reference libraries are literally at our fingertips.
6.3 Hypermedia Document Searches
When hypermedia systems were just growing like Topsy, it was not
surprising there were problems. In large hypermedia systems users
still lose their sense of orientation within the environment. Recent
research has seen interesting developments, particularly in the design
of hypermedia structures [MKSS93], [MSS93] with
links, and even without links [MPS94]. At the very least
we should be to be able to signal 'Help!' and have the system help us
backtrack. However a good PA system will help us avoid disorientation
in the first place by indicating our current position on a graphical
map of our environment. Furthermore the system will remember from day
to day, and week to week, which paths we have used, and how often, so
that by making predictions it can help us navigate much more
efficiently than we can now.
6.4 Webs and Guided Tours
There is a tremendous amount of work now being done on electronic
guided tours such as those in the Hyper-G system [KMS93], [FM94]. The successes and shortcomings of 'second
generation' hypermedia systems receive a good introductory survey in
the paper 'Reflections on Notecards: Seven Issues for the Next
Generation of Hypermedia Systems' [Hal88]. Interfaces such
as those described in 'Intermedia: The Concept and the Construction
of a Seamless Information Environment' [YHMD88], and
'IRIS Hypermedia Services' [HKR 92] help the user navigate
hypermedia webs. Intermedia, for example, shows dynamic 'tracking
maps' that display the user's current position in relation to its
predecessor and successor links. In Intermedia, operations 'behave
identically across all applications' (just one feature of beautiful
design). Features such as these will be utilised by an all-embracing
In an interesting program under development at the University of
Auckland [MS94] viewers of a university information system
will be given both two and three dimensional guided tours of the
campus and buildings. It is hoped that much of the research work will
be general enough to apply to other information systems.
Another move in the right direction is the increasing use of the
guided task paradigm [TO90] , where users are introduced to
new applications by interactively participating in guided
6.5 Sending Electronic Agents Through the Networks
Programs that search for information in wide-area networks are
proliferating. Although the trend is being fuelled by commercial
interests such as those mentioned briefly in
Section 9, obviously all types of archived
information are amenable to computer controlled searches. One well
known system, WAIS [Ste91], automatically updates 'dynamic
folders' with relevant information from selected servers.
A PA could be trained to control electronic 'agents' sent through
Internet, [Com94], so that information relevant to
the users' current needs is gathered - and summarised into their own
A detailed description of collaborative agents in computer
conferencing environments is given in 'A Framework for Controlling
Cooperative Agents' [LMS93].
7 Observing and Predicting: Electronic Assistance
During the past twenty years many papers have been written describing
specific applications that incorporate forms of intelligent electronic
assistance under various titles: intelligent editors, cooperative
agents, programming by example, programming by rehearsal, to list just
a few. An exceptionally well presented overview is given in the book
Watch What I Do: Programming by Demonstration [Cyp93].
In 1985 Zissos and Witten described a 'computer coach' that helps
users avoid repetitive formatting tasks in a wordprocessing
environment [ZW85]. It 'unobtrusively monitors
interaction with a system and offers individualised advice'. The work
has been greatly extended and several such systems have now been
developed [MW92], [WM93]. A more generalised
personal assistant has been proposed by the second author of the
present report [Mau93].
Several major computer companies are committed to developing what they
are terming 'electronic agents'. Apple Macintosh recently
demonstrated the prototype version of an electronic agent that can
learn from simple, mouse-controlled, repetitive actions. For example,
as the user steps through each stage of a process, each selection and
menu choice may be highlighted with a colour. This indicates to the
user that his actions are being shadowed by the agent. If all actions
are shadowed correctly, then the user has the option of letting the
electronic agent help from then on: for example, selected pieces of
text may be copied from one document and tabulated into another
Producing animated graphical sequences is a very repetitive task and
this must surely be one area that will greatly benefit from having an
electronic personal assistant or agent to help. In fact some of the
earliest work done in the field of programming by example was done
using graphics programs. In the paper 'Metamouse: Specifying
Graphical Procedures by Example' [MWK89] the authors
describe a system that 'induces picture-editing procedures from
execution traces'. It incorporates a very likeable icon called Basil
- a turtle in the best LOGO tradition [Pap80]. The work has
been significantly extended [MW93], [MWKF92].
A unique visual programming environment is described in the paper
'Programming by Rehearsal' [FG84], where a 'stage' is set
and peopled with 'performers'. In the book Creating User Interfaces
by Demonstration [Mye88] the author describes PERIOT
(Programming by Example for Real-time Interface
Typing). Graphical menus and windows are created by example.
MARQUISE is another interesting example of an interactive tool that
creates graphical user interfaces by demonstration [MMK93].
Considered all together, applications such as these suggest that there
is a wealth of experience waiting to be pooled into an all-embracing
and indispensable interface [PY93].
8 Making Use of the Computer's Ears, Eyes and Voice
Now that microphones and video cameras are almost standard computer
attachments, we shall undoubtably see dramatic innovations stemming
from their use. For example, when a significant number of PCs are
connected to law enforcement networks then automatic reporting of
break-ins will surely result in a proportional reduction in the number
of unsolved burglaries!
With the addition of 'eyes' and 'ears', our PC will be capable of a
wide variety of new functions. It will be able to inform us if
someone is at the door when our back is turned. As we work it will
adjust the screen brightness when the room brightness changes, or
boost the volume of our headsets when background noises increase. We
shall be able to dictate our e-~mail, and have voice prompt and help
systems. It is no longer inconceivable that an intelligent PA could
even note our mood when we first enter the office in the morning and
give appropriate responses - perhaps we might appreciate an occasional
joke or even some artificial intelligence doctoring in the style of
the Eliza program [Wei66]. Certainly a very practical
welcome would be for the machine to open the document we last worked
on and have the cursor sitting ready where we left off - surely not
too much to ask, considering that there is at least one lap-top
already on the market that leaves files open when re-booted.
The ability of the machine to recognise simple gestures such as a nod
or shake of the head opens up many possibilities. Work on eye
tracking, such as that done by M.I.T.'s Media Lab [SB90]
and the Washington Naval Research Laboratory [Jac90],
suggests that in the future we shall be able to look at a section of
the screen, and, perhaps with only a simple nod, have that particular
section enlarge automatically. This will help us in many types of
searching tasks - imagine, for example, searching screenfuls of small
windows as in applications that use miniaturised photos from CDs or
thumbnail pictures as in Hypercard [Hyp89].
If we would like to have lines of text enlarged for working on in a
word-processing task, eye movements may prove to give us better
control than the cursor method explained in
Section 3. Even if eye tracking proves to be too
imprecise, then perhaps finger tracking may still be a better
alternative. Text scroll bars as well as computer movie options could
also be controlled by eye movements. And when presented with choices
in a dialogue box we may prefer to focus on an option and then simply
Computers that can carry out a whole range of voice commands are no
longer fiction - a fact that has been widely demonstrated recently:
- 'Computer open Word file' - the word processing
package is opened.
- 'Computer write letter to John Jones' - the letter is headed
with the sender's and receiver's addresses, plus opening and closing
- 'Computer include thank you message' - a whole paragraph is
And of course this leads us to speculate how widespread
computer-generated speech will become and how long it will be before
we can actually converse with our personal assistant.
9 Help with Transaction Processing
Electronic shopping is here to stay, and the next question we must
address is how we are going to make the best use of yet another
barrage of information. Newsgroups have already advertised software
that can send electronic agents through the networks to find 'best
buys' as well as making and changing hotel, restaurant or airline
reservations for us. Of course, as with any new technology, we can
expect problems both small and large - cases of electronic agents
running 'amok' in the networks have already been reported too.
In many European countries 'telebanking' has become a routine aspect
of life due to the continuing spread of Videotex [MS82].
Ideally we could do all our banking and paying of bills via our
computer. Gone would be paper invoices, checks and forms. The
conversation with the computer might go something like this: Computer
please pay 400 dollars to Mike. Mike who? Computer, to Mike Melon of
course. PIN no? (I type in my PIN number.) Transaction number? (I
type in the correct transaction number from the current block.)
Of course, some security mechanism will be necessary to guard against
impersonators. The computer will encrypt messages for security and
use a different transaction number with each message to ensure that
any electronic eavesdropper cannot simply copy previous messages to
Although jokes are still made about the 'paperless office', with the
advent of electronic funds transferral we have made significant steps
in that direction and indications are that the current expansion of
the home computing market will lead to further advances.
10 The Individualisation Process
There is a rather interesting inference to be made from the current
vogue of having personalised emblems put on everything from coffee
mugs to designer jeans. With PA assistance in mastering intricacies
of design, we shall be design our own emblems, embellishments, and
even, if we are so inspired, our own works of art. We can then let
our PA scan the networks to find the 'best' supplier and have our
specifications e-mailed directly to them!
11 Secretary? Tutor? or Even Parent
From all that we have discussed, it is obvious that when we use the
term Personal Assistant the emphasis remains on the word 'Personal'.
A good PA system will be 'trainable' so that after a few weeks my PA
will act in a very different way from yours - even if we purchased
identical software to begin with.
Ideally, it will also be desirable to have alternative sets of
characteristics built into a PA that modify it for specific tasks. At
the office I shall expect my PA to act
as my own personal secretary -
it will help me with all my correspondence, arrange meetings (see
Sectionn 5), help with time management, and so on. Of
significant assistance will be a 'My archive' program that helps
classify and archive all types of information: text, graphics, video
and audio clips, important documents and interesting little snippets.
All archived material will be amenable to retrieval by powerful search
techniques such as those described in
At university or school, the PA will become my personal tutor, helping
me organise work and make the most of opportunities that are offered.
In the paper 'Lecturing Technology: A Future With Hypermedia'
[LM94], we show what tremendous potential lies in the
integration of multimedia lectures with a good database when all
students have their own portable PCs. Excellent computer-aided
instruction material will be generated. Since students will be able
to replay the lecture away from the classroom, important distance
learning opportunities will be provided.
However, when I lend my PC to my six-year-old child I hope my PA will
not only protect all my work from sabotage but will transact on quite
a different level. It could act as a 'parent' - even to pulling the
plug on games and bringing up some homework!
Thus when designing a PA we shall need to ask ourselves what the
characteristics are of a manager's best secretary, a student's
favourite lecturer, and even more elusively a 'good' parent, to see
if we can simulate at least some of their attributes. A challenge
12 Looking To the Future
As small gets smaller, and more powerful still, we can expect that
computers the size of notebooks will support more PA functions than we
have described. The initial interest created by pen-based electronic
notebooks such as Apple Macintosh's Newton or Casio's Zoomer suggests
that users enjoy that environment, limited as it still is. Users
particularly enjoy sketching in environments that help them work more
efficiently by neatening up their work, letting them work with
constraints, and supporting incompleteness [Kim89],
[Zha93]. There is even a certain perverse satisfaction in
erasing errors by scribbling over them! All this is certainly an
indication of things to come.
In the article 'To Forecast Information Technology is Impossible Yet
Necessary' [ML94] , we argue that future advances in
information technology are quite unpredictable. However we go on to
surmise: 'In ten or fifteen years from now everyone will carry small
but powerful Notebook computers around with them. The much heralded
Newton is certainly a first step in this direction! You will be able
to talk into your notebook and have more commands, programs, and
facilities available than we can imagine. For example, if you go to a
foreign country and talk into your notebook in English out will come
Greek or French. A global positioning system will display maps for
you and show you at any time exactly where you are located on the
surface of the earth. And of course a mobile telephone will be
integrated into your notebook, giving access to all the databases of
the world - so you can look up theatre programmes and bus and train
connections. It will be your digital photo camera, and it will
replace your wallet and credit cards. It will be indispensable.'
Our definition of a true personal assistant obviously bears little
relation to any currently available commercial product. It is not
just a glorified Newton. It is part background processor
(continuously scanning the networks), part consistent graphical
interface (across all applications), and part special routines
integrated into application programs. It thus supports the user at
all levels of activity. By making predictions from repetitive tasks,
it saves us both time and frustration. It manages our e-mail,
classifies and archives our work, and employs powerful fuzzy search
algorithms to retrieve documents from complex hypermedia systems. It
is much more than a generalised help system. It can be a model
secretary, tutor and baby-sitter, a police officer who patrols our
surroundings while simultaneously ensuring that we do not
inadvertently break copyright laws or lose ourselves in hyperspace.
It will be our augmented eyes and ears, an alter ego we create for
The authors wish to thank Professor Hermann Maurer for support,
encouragement, and many enjoyable discussions during the writing of this paper. Many of the ideas were suggested by him.
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