Return of Microsoft Bob? Bill Gates sees new chance for personal agents

Microsoft Bob
Microsoft Bob's glasses are still in, even though his software isn't.

REDMOND — Bill Gates opened his talk at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit Monday by saying we’ve entered a “golden age of computing,” as connectivity, data and processing power open up new opportunities to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

Which paves the way, of course, for the return of Microsoft Bob.

OK, not really, but in response to one question, the Microsoft chairman did refer to the company’s ill-fated virtual Windows assistant, circa 1995, as an early example of a ”personal agent” helping lead us through our daily tasks.

The potential is much richer today, Gates said.

He explained, “It’s been talked about for decades, and now really is possible — where we see where you’re going, we see your calendar, we see your various communications. … We can actually look at the text, look at the speech, try to be helpful to you in your activities. I think we will be more connected and therefore if somebody wants to do a task like find a gift of a certain type, organize a trip in a certain way, there will be a closer match — that is, the gap between what the software can do for them and what most people end up doing, that could be reduced.

“But you always make mistakes on these things. When the machine tries to do the table with numbers, or the dog comes up and says, ‘Oh, you didn’t do this thing right,’ Microsoft Bob-style. A long time ago we tried a little personality that was definitely premature. I think it will re-emerge, but perhaps with a bit more sophistication. We were just ahead of our time, like most of our mistakes.”

Apple has tried to tackle this problem in recent years with its Siri personal assistant for iOS, whose web search results will be powered by Microsoft’s Bing search engine in iOS 7, the upcoming revamp of Apple’s mobile operating system.

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