Microsoft researchers have developed Laura, a virtual personal assistant that can complete many of the tasks filled by a real personal assistant, including scheduling meetings or booking a flight. Laura can make sophisticated decisions about the people using the computer, commenting on their attire, whether they seem impatient, their level of importance, and their preferred times for appointments. “What we’re after is common sense about etiquette and what people want,” says Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz. Microsoft also recently demonstrated new software systems designed to power futuristic games, medical devices, and teaching tools. Meanwhile, Intel is expected to elaborate on plans to extend its low-power Atom chip from laptops to cars, robots, and home-security systems. These new systems are in response to a growing desire for simpler, less functional computers. Simple netbooks and inexpensive, compact laptops are currently the fastest-selling products in the PC market. As consumers stop looking for increasingly fast and powerful PCs, Intel and Microsoft are looking to redefine what the hottest computers look like. Analysts say that both companies have a history of lofty research projects that often don’t translate well into consumer products, but the time may have finally arrived when available technology matches demand. For example, Laura’s artificial intelligence and graphics capabilities require a top-of-the-line chip with eight processor cores, which once would have only been available in a server. However, Intel is now working on integrating similar levels of processing power into tiny chips that could fit inside any device.
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