Page last updated at 08:02 GMT, Friday, 26 August 2005 09:02 UK

Squirrel helps with mobile calls

By Luke Alexander
BBC News

The Cellular Squirrel
The squirrel uses body language and movement to communicate
There are few things more intrusive than a mobile phone ringtone.

Yet, despite the existence of answer phones and voice mail, a ringing phone remains impossible to ignore.

Whether we are having a private conversation, snowed under with work, or just not in the mood to speak to anyone, the phone keeps ringing.

MIT research student Stefan Marti may have the answer: ditch your mobile phone, and get a squirrel.

Specifically, an animatronic desktop squirrel which deals with your calls for you. The squirrel answers phone calls, works out if you are busy or asleep, evaluates how important the incoming call is and takes messages.

When it wants to alert its owner to a call, it waves and moves about rather than making a sound. And, it is ridiculously cute.

Emotional intelligence

Currently, the squirrel prototype needs to communicate with a computer and so is tied to a physical location, but there is no reason that the technology could not eventually fit into something the size of a mobile phone.

HOW THE SQUIRREL WORKS
See how the cellular squirrel deals with calls

In previous incarnations, the device has been a bunny and a parrot. The idea, says Mr Marti, is to dress the technology up as something which we would be happy talking down to.

"If you have a less intelligent metaphor that you base your interface on, humans are less likely to be disappointed with the limits of the interaction," he told the BBC News website.

The key principle behind the Autonomous Interactive Intermediary (AII), or "cellular squirrel", is that machines should display what psychologists call social or emotional intelligence.

In other words, a computer should be able to communicate information in a way which is responsive to the social situations around it.

Mobile phones were the perfect candidate for this approach, says Mr Marti.

"Since we are using it on the go, our social settings are changing continuously, but our mobile communication devices do not adapt."

Everyday stress

Technology generally is getting more demanding and taking greater advantage of our day to day reliance on the its functions.

Woman at a bank of computers
Increasing use of computers at work has lead to greater stress
On a PC, If a program wants to attract our attention, it will flash at us relentlessly until we look at it. Digital TVs pester us with instructions to press red buttons.

The result of this is higher stress, shorter fuses, anger and even resentment towards the machines we use every day.

Technology was supposed to make our life easier, faster and smarter. And while the power of technology has increased, the way it fits into our lives has barely changed.

Mr Marti thinks the future will see us levelling the playing field, and interacting with the technology around is in the same way we interact with each other.

To achieve this, future technology needs to "have a deeper understanding of how humans like to interact, what humans want, and eventually what humanity stands for," he said.

"This includes our immediate context, our thinking and our goals, but also our morals and ethics."

Sensible interaction

Man using mobile phone
Mobile phone use is a major cause of stress on holiday
Sooner or later, Mr Marti suggests, either technology will disappear completely into our lives, or get so complex that the only sensible interaction with it is through agents such as the cellular squirrel.

But there are still technologies, he argues, which just do not need to be improved, such as the lift or elevator.

"Although we have had speech recognition for some time now, elevators still have push buttons. It just doesn't make any sense to introduce a more complex interface when what we have is already completely appropriate."

"You can make it behave in a socially intelligent way, such as speeding up for emergencies, slowing down when the conversation in the elevator seems to be interesting, stopping at the usual floors for passengers - all things that are technically possible today."

"For some tasks, though, pressing a button to initiate a certain procedure is better than getting involved in a philosophical discussion with a wise-ass elevator about who is most important in the lift and needs to get where first."

SEE ALSO
Deafblind slate 'senseless' tech
27 Jun 05 |  Technology
Aim to create 'sensitive' PCs
22 Mar 03 |  Technology

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