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While the exact workings of Smart Desktop have not yet been finalized, Herlocker says that the aim is to make the intelligence as invisible as possible. For example, the system might reorder search results to bring more-relevant results closer to the top. Or, when a user goes to save a file, the default folders will have been selected based on the project the user is working on, reducing the number of clicks needed to find the right place to store the information.

“One key is having a solution that works without making users change the way they work,” says Forbes.

Herlocker says that the company has tried to take into consideration how much people are willing to train a system, and how many interruptions they are willing to tolerate. “We’ve tried to pick the middle ground that leverages as much as possible what we know to date about machine learning and artificial intelligence, but at the same time remain very realistic about the impact of using machine-learning systems in a human context,” he says.

Pi isn’t the only company working on products of this type. Microsoft, through its Center for Information Work, is also developing a desktop assistant with similar capabilities. Currently in its prototype form, Microsoft’s desktop assistant is designed to bring together an individual’s communications, calendar, and other related information so that it creates a timeline view of her day. The system brings up relevant content based on what the user is currently doing, or what she should be doing at that time. “The software behind the desktop assistant is ‘smart’ in that it understands what information is important, and prioritizes communications and information, allowing the user to filter down the noise to a manageable level,” says Russ Burtner, user-experience designer for the Center for Information Work.

Smart Desktop is currently available in an invitation-only preview, but Herlocker says that he expects the full product to be released in late 2008.

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