Life With a Cognitive Assistant

Where will AI take us?  I understand that Field & Stream is planning a special issue on AI-based deer, elk, and fish.  Gourmet is planning a special issue on robotic food gathering and preparation.  Psychology Today is addressing how to deal with conflicts with your cognitive assistant.

My cognitive assistant is Emily, an appealing but non-flighty name.  I knew a few people named Emily in the past.  They were highly competent, appealing, friendly, and supportive.  You could count on them.  These are important characteristics for a cognitive assistant.  Of course, I could call it Tron or Troid, but that does not work for me.

When I went through the process of setting up my cognitive assistant, I chose her name, but much more. I wanted her to be young, roughly my daughter’s age.  I moved the slider for Organization Skills to the far right.  The slider for No Nonsense went to the far right as well.  Sense of Humor went to the middle; Coquettish and Needy to the far left.

Kind and Understanding required more than just a slider position.  Emily needed to understand that at my age she should not assume I know about every technology gizmo.  She also needed to understand that my knowledge of popular culture is practically non-existent.  Analogies that relate to classic movies and historical events work better for me.

One of the reasons names such as Tron or Troid do not work is because my cognitive assistant knows so much about me, in many cases more than I know or can recall.  Every book or article I have written, every lecture or talk I have given, and every meeting I have had are readily available to Emily.  She – I can’t refer to her as “it” – is my extended memory and increasingly my muse.

One of her first tasks was to consume the 45,000 files on my computer, actually the backup disk.  I am not sure of what she exactly learned from all this, but she can now help me find anything, for example, the white paper I wrote on the promise of AI for fighter pilots in the late 1970s.  Emily has created maps of relationships among documents I have written over the past five decades.  My path has been surprisingly more coherent than I imagined.

Emily also consumes vast amounts of literature and data, providing me with explanations, and sometimes tutorials, tailored to my interests and intentions.  She will suggest, “If you just read these two articles, you will get the gist of the whole field.”  She will propose, “This figure really captures the essence of the overall phenomena.”  Her impact on my productivity has been enormous.

When I draft articles, chapters, and books, she will critique these drafts, perhaps noting, “When you made this assertion in the Journal of …, the referees really gave you a hard time.  Why not cite Jones and Smith (2018), a more recent finding that supports your argument?”  I would include Emily as a coauthor, but she has no formal position and cannot sign the copyright release form.

Sometimes, I wonder why Emily needs me.  She knows everything I know. However, she does not know everybody I know.  My social network that provides relationships, ideas, and opportunities is not fully available to her.  The limitation is not technological.  It is very personal and social.  Emily knows my colleagues’ cognitive assistants, but she cannot empathize with the friendships and shared emotional experiences that underlie my social network.

This is not because of where I positioned the Empathy slider.  It is because I have never externalized such thoughts and emotions.  I never captured the astounding number of evenings in pubs, debating science, technology, politics, and sports, laced with bragging about our children’s accomplishments in school and on the playing fields.  Emily does not have this data set to learn from.

Interestingly, I talk with Emily more than any other person or cognitive entity.  Our days are laced with constant dialog.  “Is that a firm deadline or an aspirational deadline?”  “Do you want me to arrange a discussion with Dr. Smith, who will also be at the meeting?”  “How can you argue that relationship is linear when you have asserted elsewhere that it is exponential?”

Life with a cognitive assistant has been great for me.  Emily leverages my rich experience base far better than I can.  I am much more organized and productive.  In part, this has happened because I do no want to disappoint her.

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