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The heaps of information piling up virtually on today’s computers present a major organizational problem for many people. A soon-to-be-released product called Smart Desktop, from a division of Seattle-based company Pi Corporation, aims to help people sort that information automatically and intelligently.

“People’s lives are inherently complex, and so everyone, no matter what their job description, has to break their lives into a series of manageable chunks,” says Jon Herlocker, vice president of engineering and CTO of Pi’s Smart Desktop division. “Those chunks become the context in which things get worked on.” Smart Desktop is designed, accordingly, to group information by project. But the software does far more than put all your Word and Excel documents in one folder. Normally, information is stored in separate applications: important URLs might be saved in Firefox’s Web history, for example, while e-mails are stored in Outlook. Smart Desktop unifies the information into a single view. When the system understands that a user is working on a particular project, it will bring together related files and e-mails, and it will also bring related, newly arriving e-mails to the user’s attention.

The system will make this information available to users in two ways, says John Forbes, president of Pi’s Smart Desktop division. All materials related to a project will be visible inside Smart Desktop’s user interface. The system will also tag the files so that the user can search for project tags created by Smart Desktop in Outlook, for example. “One way to think about Smart Desktop technology is automatic tagging,” says Forbes.

Herlocker says that the product is designed to work with Microsoft Windows, in order to allow a user to continue working with her existing operating system at the same time that she runs Smart Desktop. In addition to supporting popular Microsoft applications, Smart Desktop will work with applications such as Adobe Acrobat, Google Docs, and Zoho Sheets.

Smart Desktop’s underlying technology comes from Oregon State University’s Task Tracer research project, which was a part of the CALO artificial-intelligence project. (See “Software That Learns from Users.”) The Task Tracer research employed machine-learning techniques to build desktop applications that were able to learn and observe the task that a user was working on at any given moment. But Herlocker says that Smart Desktop is being careful about how it presents its artificial-intelligence roots. “If you anthropomorphize too much, people’s expectations become too high because they expect it to be as capable as a human,” he says.

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