Meet Laura, Your Virtual Personal Assistant

Host Liane Hansen speaks with Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz about the development of Laura, a virtual personal assistant.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

If you had a personal assistant, would you get more done? Would someone to book your appointments or schedule flights make your life easier? Well, that's what Microsoft was thinking when the company developed a virtual personal assistant named Laura. She's a talking head on a computer screen. And with Laura at the boss's door, you might hear this in the future.

LAURA (Virtual Personal Assistant): Hi, are you looking for Eric?

Unidentified Man: Yes.

LAURA: I'm his virtual admin. I know he has a meeting scheduled with you, but he's running a bit late from a previous meeting in Building 34. You can go ahead and wait in his office if you'd like.

HANSEN: The Eric in that is Eric Horvitz, a researcher at Microsoft. He specializes in machine learning and has been working on the development of Laura. He joins us from Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

Eric, welcome to the program.

Mr. ERIC HORVITZ (Microsoft): Hi.

HANSEN: Tell us how she works.

Mr. HORVITZ: Well, she's a - in her case, or I should say it, to not get too anthropomorphic here, we give the apparatus access to my calendar and statistics of my comings and goings in this particular application that helps people at my door.

HANSEN: Hmm. So if people approach your door and Laura is there, can she tell a lot about that person by their face, in terms of face recognition, their voice recognition, and other things as well?

Mr. HORVITZ: Well, she currently looks at the calendar to makes sure she can recognize whether or not these people actually are on my schedule. She actually can see how many people are out there and whether they're in a group or not, or separate. She gets a sense for whether they want to engage her versus pass by, maybe with a little hello.

The idea is to bring computers together with people and have a mix that sort of, you know, enhances the quality of our lives in a variety of ways. For example, imagine some day in inner cities in developing nations, having kiosks that can actually assist with medical triage and bring - understand when to bring in, bring to bear the human, very limited human resources.

So it's really not to replace. It's in some ways to complement.

HANSEN: In the future, if I wanted my own virtual computer assistant, I could basically make up anybody I wanted?

Mr. HORVITZ: Absolutely. In fact, we're working on a medical system right now that has very deep knowledge in pediatrics. And believe it or not, the models that we built to do thinking about how to do diagnosis were built by my favorite attending physician at Stanford, when I was in medical school at Stanford. And we want to basically capture his essence, his face and his emotive ways, as a great pediatrician.

HANSEN: Eric Horvitz is a principal researcher at Microsoft, talking about the virtual assistant, Laura. He joined us from Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

Thanks a lot for your time.

Mr. HORVITZ: It's been a pleasure.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.