What is Microsoft’s “personal agent,” and what is Bill Gates doing working on it?
Gates took to the virtual pages of Reddit for his third “Ask Me Anything” session, answering the usual mix of serious and semi-serious questions. But in the middle of the session he seemingly dropped a bombshell.
“One project I am working on with Microsoft is the Personal Agent which will remember everything and help you go back and find things and help you pick what things to pay attention to,” Gates wrote. “The idea that you have to find applications and pick them and they each are trying to tell you what is new is just not the efficient model—the agent will help solve this. It will work across all your devices.”
Gates didn’t follow up with any additional information, although his comments were in response to a question about what technology might look like in 2045, 30 years down the road. “There will be more progress in the next 30 years than ever,” Gates wrote. “Even in the next 10 problems like vision and speech understanding and translation will be very good. Mechanical robot tasks like picking fruit or moving a hospital patient will be solved. Once computers/robots get to a level of capability where seeing and moving is easy for them then they will be used very extensively.”
So far, the only “personal agent” that Microsoft has publicly worked on—and shipped—has been Cortana, the digital assistant that’s built into Windows Phone and appears in a technical preview of Windows 10. But Cortana has also been exclusive to the Microsoft platform, and hasn’t yet migrated to iOS or Android. In concept, Gates' Personal Agent sounds something like LifeBits, a digital store of everything that Microsoft researchers talked about several years ago, but enhanced with Bing search functionality, possibly.
It's unclear whether Gates is referring to Cortana, an enhanced version, or something new. A Microsoft spokeswoman had no immediate comment.
Machines: our savior, our destroyer
Gates also appeared to say that he would focus on artificial intelligence if he could do it all over again. "I would probably be a researcher on AI," Gates wrote. "When I started Microsoft I was worried I would miss the chance to do basic work in that field."
What's interesting, though, is that Gates also warned against putting too much responsibility into the hands of machines. "I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence," he wrote. "First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don't understand why some people are not concerned."
Why this matters: While it's certainly unclear what Gates is getting at with his discussion of personal agents, two things seem clear: One, your personal data still resides in various application silos that don't talk well to one another. And two, the data permissions those apps ask of you may one day be replaced by permissions one app asks of another. It's just that storing your entire life online may freak out more than a few people.