By Luke Alexander
are few things more intrusive than a mobile phone ringtone.
The squirrel uses body language and movement to
Yet, despite the existence of answer phones and voice mail, a
ringing phone remains impossible to ignore.
Whether we are having a private conversation, snowed under with
work, or just not in the mood to speak to anyone, the phone keeps
MIT research student Stefan Marti may have the answer: ditch your
mobile phone, and get a squirrel.
Specifically, an animatronic desktop squirrel which deals with
your calls for you. The squirrel answers phone calls, works out if
you are busy or asleep, evaluates how important the incoming call is
and takes messages.
When it wants to alert its owner to a call, it waves and moves
about rather than making a sound. And, it is ridiculously cute.
Currently, the squirrel prototype needs to communicate with a
computer and so is tied to a physical location, but there is no
reason that the technology could not eventually fit into something
the size of a mobile phone.
[an error occurred while processing this
directive] In previous incarnations, the device has
been a bunny and a parrot. The idea, says Mr Marti, is to dress the
technology up as something which we would be happy talking down to.
"If you have a less intelligent metaphor that you base your
interface on, humans are less likely to be disappointed with the
limits of the interaction," he told the BBC News website.
The key principle behind the Autonomous Interactive Intermediary
(AII), or "cellular squirrel", is that machines should display what
psychologists call social or emotional intelligence.
In other words, a computer should be able to communicate
information in a way which is responsive to the social situations
Mobile phones were the perfect candidate for this approach, says
"Since we are using it on the go, our social settings are
changing continuously, but our mobile communication devices do not
Technology generally is getting more demanding and taking greater
advantage of our day to day reliance on the its functions.
On a PC,
If a program wants to attract our attention, it will flash at us
relentlessly until we look at it. Digital TVs pester us with
instructions to press red buttons.
Increasing use of computers at work has lead to
The result of this is higher stress, shorter fuses, anger and
even resentment towards the machines we use every day.
Technology was supposed to make our life easier, faster and
smarter. And while the power of technology has increased, the way it
fits into our lives has barely changed.
Mr Marti thinks the future will see us levelling the playing
field, and interacting with the technology around is in the same way
we interact with each other.
To achieve this, future technology needs to "have a deeper
understanding of how humans like to interact, what humans want, and
eventually what humanity stands for," he said.
"This includes our immediate context, our thinking and our goals,
but also our morals and ethics."
or later, Mr Marti suggests, either technology will disappear
completely into our lives, or get so complex that the only sensible
interaction with it is through agents such as the cellular squirrel.
Mobile phone use is a major cause of stress on
But there are still technologies, he argues, which just do not
need to be improved, such as the lift or elevator.
"Although we have had speech recognition for some time now,
elevators still have push buttons. It just doesn't make any sense to
introduce a more complex interface when what we have is already
"You can make it behave in a socially intelligent way, such as
speeding up for emergencies, slowing down when the conversation in
the elevator seems to be interesting, stopping at the usual floors
for passengers - all things that are technically possible today."
"For some tasks, though, pressing a button to initiate a certain
procedure is better than getting involved in a philosophical
discussion with a wise-ass elevator about who is most important in
the lift and needs to get where first."