Mobile Phones With Manners
By David Pescovitz, Thu Feb 12 20:30:00 GMT 2004

Brace yourself for some shocking news. According to a new survey, the single invention that Americans hate most but can't live without is (drumroll, please) the cell phone.

The eighth annual Lemelson-MIT Invention Index study probed more than one thousand people across the nation about their attitudes towards invention. Thirty percent of the respondents cited the mobile phone as the most-despised yet essential invention, edging out old stand-bys like the alarm clock (25%) and television (23%).

Of course, this should come as no surprise. Most of us have love-hate relationships with our cell phones. We want the connectivity, except when we don't. Still, some of the anger reflected in the Invention Index may be misdirected.

"I certainly don't hate my cell phone, but I do hate other people's cell phones," says Chris Schmandt, director of the Speech Interface Group within the university's Media Lab. "We need to understand the impact of our communication on everyone around us."

The irony is that technologically instilling mobile phones with social intelligence may be easier than teaching people manners. To that end, Schmandt and his colleagues are developing software agents that minimize the inappropriate behavior of mobile phones. Beyond just combating rudeness though, Schmandt's innovations would also be a godsend to those who want to be both accessible and polite.

One of the research group's approaches is to enable mobile phones to ask each other what the best behavior may be for a given situation. That way, even if you forget to switch off your ringer when you sit down in a theater, your phone would wirelessly query the settings of the other handsets in the vicinity.

"If the phones around you are all in silent mode, maybe your phone will take the hint and choose to alert you in a way other than ringing," Schmandt says.

It's a simple concept, but potentially very useful. For instance, you could program your phone to be on the lookout for your supervisor's phone. Then, if you're chatting with the boss and someone happens to dial your number, the call would automatically be routed to voicemail.

The researchers are also exploring ways to instrument mobile phones with tiny sensors to detect motion and sound, factors that could help inform a device's behavior. This kind of context-aware phone could tease out patterns in its owner's daily routine and then ask the user how it should respond to incoming calls during those regularly-occurring events.

Say you walk to the bus stop each morning. A context-aware phone would notice that at around the same time every day you move slowly and steadily for a while, stop completely, and then dramatically speed up. After noticing this pattern, you phone might ask you if you'd like to tie specific preferences to this particular activity. At that point, you could then set the device to ring while you're walking but switch to silent once you board the bus.

The phone could also be programmed to respond to calls in different ways, depending on what its owner is doing. For instance, Schmandt explains, if a call comes when he's riding the bus, he'd like the caller to receive a message to the effect of: "It's not a good time for Chris to talk. Would you like to text message him instead?" The agent would then ask the caller to stay on the line while the message is delivered. That way, Schmandt adds, he can decide whether to break routine and actually take the call.

Right now, Schmandt's system requires users to automatically enter their preferences. His long-term research goal though is to design handset systems that are intelligent enough to respond appropriately based on past experience.

"Every time the phone presents the user with an alert, it's an opportunity for the device to learn whether it behaved appropriately," he says. "It could infer that if I'm walking and my phone rings, I'll always answer it. But if I'm on a bus, I won't."

The key though, Schmandt explains, is to ensure that all of these features are entirely optional and easy to circumvent.

"You have to have a global override," he says.

It may take Schmandt's technology years to reach the marketplace, but fortunately our phones are already equipped with such an override. It's called an "off" button.