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An abacus is a state machine. It executes no instructions, and maintains no history, but it does store a single state, semi-persistently and nearly-infinitely rewritably, and it stores it in a representation that facilitates operator-initiated state-changes of certain types. An electric typewriter with a single-character backspace function is approximately equivalent in computational terms. Both of these are very useful devices.  

A typewriter with a multiple-character backspace function has both state and memory. The simplest electric calculator has both state and automated instruction execution. A semi-modern calculator has state, instruction and memory, and at this point we can call it a basic computer. The subsequent history of human-computer interaction design has been a slow process of iteratively transcending decreasingly unimaginative understandings of the implications of state, instruction and memory.  

The conceptual breakthroughs of the earliest text-processing programs were 1) that semantically non-numeric information could be represented in numeric memory, 2) that semantically non-mathematical operations could be modeled in mathematical instructions, and 3) that quantitative increases in memory capacity could enable qualitatively different uses of that memory. Further thought about representation led to storing formatting in addition to text itself. Further thought about instructions led to the automation of layout operations, and the addition of text-processing operations like search-and-replace. This makes for a more interesting state-machine than an abacus, but still effectively a state machine in most user-apparent aspects.  

The conceptual shift from state machine to information appliance can be reduced, symbolically, to model-altering insights embodied in three perhaps seemingly incremental features. From the critical realization that the computer's representation of information could include more than the ostensible current state came the radical notion of Undo, and later its extrapolation to Undelete. From the realization that a significant body of pre-existing external human knowledge could be represented and usefully applied to user-generated information came the extraordinary new idea of machine proofreading. File transmission applied signal-bearing wires to the space between people, rather than just between devices. Combine data application and wires and you get the net as gigantic reference library and perpetual market. Combine wires and internal state and you get distributed applications and the net as communication infrastructure. Combine data application and internal state and you get data mining and machine translation. Combine all three and you get more or less everything in modern computing up to the night before IM, online dating, eBay, Mapquest, Napster, Google, SETI@Home, "people who bought this also bought", phonecams and the blogosphere.  

But it's the next morning, now, and I don't really want an information appliance. I want a virtual personal assistant. I want my writing software to think of its job not just as formatting documents, but as remembering everything I do when I write, including things I don't realize I'm doing, and things I do while writing that aren't themselves writing. I don't just want document-level Undo, I want a coherent journal view of everything I typed, including all the dead-end phrases I tried and deleted and might now want to revisit. Actually, I don't want fundamentally document-level anything, I want a dynamic evolving history of my entire interaction with my computer and the network beyond it, navigable by chronology or association. I want to jump from an email to the web page on which I found the stat I cited four replies ago in the note that started the conversation. I want to go from the song I'm playing to the birthday of the person who told me about it, to a cross-referenced list of the other music I associate with the song and the other music all my friends have mentioned in emails and IMs and forum notes and shared playlists and now-playing monitors. I want to see rhythms of correspondences and patterns of discovery and contours of neglect. I want the things I've forgotten to know when to remind me of themselves, and the things I think I know to have the humility to volunteer for their retirements.  

The primary challenges for the design of virtual personal assistants are of a different nature (naturally) than the challenges for the design of information appliances or state machines. What the state machine worries about representing, the assistant thinks about communicating and transforming and connecting. What the information appliance struggles to remember, the assistant has to decide how to share and correlate, and when if ever to forget. The state machine works to its capacity. The information appliance works to its parameters. The assistant, however, must be self-governing and evolvingly aware of its own limits, able to differentiate between automating and advising. The assistant will be evaluated not only on what it accomplishes, but on what it knows to ask and when. The state machine's applications were solipsists, however creative. The information appliance's applications were autocrats, however occasionally beneficent or enlightened. The assistant's applications are inventors and ambassadors and advocates and court jesters, and sometimes mercenaries and cannon fodder, and every once in a while oblivious innocent bystanders willing to go home without complaint when you promise them there's nothing to see here.  

And in a connected and definingly social world, the virtual personal assistant is a distributed and intimately negotiated function, and the rules that maintain the productive tension between isolation and aggregation are even more complex. What is the currency of the economy of privacy and trust? On what grounds do you delegate a privilege or retain it? What of yourself are you willing to reveal in return for what collective wisdom, from what collectives, and for that matter which and how much "wisdom" are you prepared to consume, and in what forms? When is it information we seek, and when is information-exchange merely a proxy for personal contact? When does a system become more humane by modeling its users more precisely, and when does it serve them better by leaving them to their own improvisation and compromise?  

The new world will be many things, some of which are already emerging and some of which are yet deeply hidden, but here are a few of what may be its truths:  

- Millions now stored will never be erased. In the last era, everything not saved was instantly lost. In the new era, everything not meticulously preconstructed for disintegration will be indexed and archived forever.  

- Data belongs to people, not processes. There are no silos in the new architecture. Persistence doesn't mean writing something so that it can be reconstructed by its originating code, it means writing it so that it can be reconstructed without its originating code.  

- You are in a maze of twisty passages, each explicably unique and enticingly beckoning. The new systems must not only know when to ask you questions, they must know how to categorize the properties of the possible answers. They must know how to empower your responses with nuance rather than luring you into literalist traps.  

- Everything good is relative. The old era was about identification and instantiation and encapsulation. The new era is about connection and abstraction and subcomposition and change. The old tools had files and records and pages. The new ones have links and self-description and self-direction. The old world was measured in assignments and addresses, the new one in associations and relationships. The old tools took knowledge apart, the new ones must put it back together again.  

- There are three classes of the acted-upon and the acting: objects, creatures and artists. Objects have no value except as they benefit creatures or express the work of artists, and perform no act except in response. Creatures are to be respected and defended and delighted, and acknowledged in their free will, but not burdened with responsibility or solicited for decisions. Artists are the source of all authority and the ultimate ends of all means. Humans are sometimes artists but always at least creatures. Machines and systems and programs (and policies and corporations and governments and precepts, including these) are never more than objects. The first obligation of any designed system is to be obsessively devoted to the intricate cognizance of these boundaries.  

The simplest worthy tools exist to protect or sustain something alive. The best ones express something that makes living more beautiful. What numbers do your machines safeguard that an abacus wasn't sufficient to protect? What do your machines make beautiful, that was ugly when all we had were wood and beads and hands?
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