Do you want a nagging Mac?

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 09/91 item 03 - scanned

My friend Catherine has got one of those cars that talks to you. It whispers advice like "fuel level low" or "left rear door open". The first time I heard it, I thought, "Bloody nerve". But on reflection, I thought it could save a life or the embarrassment of running out of fuel. One problem is that the car's fuel gauge is broken, so every time Catherine switches on the ignition she is told her fuel level is low. This is driving her mad. Especially when she's just filled up with £25 worth of fuel. There are times when she'd like to switch the voice off. Sometimes the car shouts at her. She reckons it is so loud that she jumps off the seat. The car only does this when something goes seriously wrong, like the engine overheating. I have to confess that I've always found flashing lights and beepers quite adequate and I share her reservations about a shouting car.

Perhaps a more apologetic approach might work better. How about a gentle cough followed by, "Excuse me driver, did you know the engine is overheating? Unless you switch off, it could cost you a hefty repair bill"? I'm no psychologist, and I've probably used the wrong words, but I feel that something in the manner of a butler would be more acceptable than that of a sergeant major.

Inevitably, my thoughts turned to the Mac and I wondered whether I'd like my Mac to talk to me. Having decided it could be quite fun, I then wondered what kind of things I'd like it to say. Could it make me happier? More fulfilled? More successful? That's what computers are for, aren't they?

Most of the ideas I came up with required the machine to have a degree of intelligence. Daniel, my 10-year-old, made a suggestion which required no intelligence on the part of the machine. "Why not get it to give you a riddle when you start the machine? Then you won't notice how long the Mac takes to get going." He's got a point. It takes my Mac 57 seconds to get going. A riddle would certainly help pass the time. The trouble is that it takes 25 seconds to get to the smiley face, probably the first point at which it could tell me the riddle.

By adding simple monitoring capabilities, you could get your Mac to embark on all sorts of conversations. Suppose it noted the time since it last did any processing for you. After a while it could ask: "Are you bored? Do you want to play a game?" After an even longer time, it could ask: "Doesn't my fan irritate you?" and offer to switch itself off. Or maybe, "Since you haven't used me for a while, would you like me to do a bit of housekeeping?" I refer, of course, to disk housekeeping - chucking out duplicate files and preparing a list of those you haven't accessed since the year dot. None of this is artificial intelligence, but it could be jolly useful.

Moving up a notch, you could have a very solicitous computer that watches your throughput. After you've been tapping and clicking for a couple of hours, it could say: "Hey, isn't it time you took a break?" It could suggest tea, coffee, lunch, bed, or whatever was most appropriate to the time of day and to your personal preferences. If you worked for several evenings on the trot, it could suggest you take your partner out or walk the dog. It would know what to suggest because of the personal profile you provided when you got the program.

You could even give it your ideal work pattern. Then, if you consistently work to a different pattern, it could hint that you're not pulling your finger out or that you're working too hard. You could tell it when the major events in your year happen. It could then start nudging you with: "Don't forget the VAT return next week" or "Have you thought about Daniel's birthday present?" To each of these, it could ask you when you'd like to be reminded again. The possibilities are limitless, yet none would take a huge amount of programming effort.

It's quite reasonable to think of a program which could watch your keyboard and mouse activity and get to know your behaviour. It could see that there are certain keys you take longer to find, certain ways of using menus, and so on. If your behaviour should suddenly change, the computer could look at the time of day, how long you've been working, whether you'd just been to lunch, and suggest that you're either overtired or in need of a cup of black coffee. In the nicest possible way, it could suggest that you're not at your best.

If you want to get really sophisticated, the Mac could watch out for you when you're on-line. The charges can get quite horrendous. A little reminder like: "That memo you just sent cost you £4.50. If you'd typed it off-line, you'd have saved enough for four McDonald's breakfasts." Your relationship with your Mac would change. Suddenly, you'd be companions.

But you'd have to be able to switch the voice off.