The problem with much of what passes for help in the consumer-electronics industry is, it's not all that helpful. Booklets and online tutorials don't get you far with the typical brain-teasing array of buttons, menu items, and icons on your cell phone or television. So unless you're smarter than most of us, you're doomed to telephone support and—%$#@!—user hell.
So what if manufacturers thought about the problem in a completely different way? What if they built operating instructions into the products themselves and tailored the interface to customers' goals instead of around the devices' functions? That's the idea driving Roadie, software being developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Roadie, designed to work with most Internet-enabled devices, uses artificial-intelligence algorithms to manage knowledge including how electronic components should work and how they can be fixed. Basically, it looks for certain actions and calculates possible goals, or vice versa. "If the system is good enough, you could even dispense with conventional buttons," says Henry Lieberman, an MIT scientist who developed the technology with graduate student José Espinosa.
Let's say you want to record Kill Bill 2 from your television onto a Roadie-enabled DVD player. When the player is turned on, Roadie presents you with a dialogue window containing several likely actions: "Record a DVD movie," "Watch a DVD movie," or "Listen to a music CD."
You select "Record a DVD movie" and press one of four control buttons: "Perform this action," "Do next step," "Tell me more," and "Oops, it does not work." Click on the first, and Roadie computes the next steps—some of which it will execute itself ("Open the player door") and others that you'll have to do on its instructions ("Insert blank DVD"). "Tell me more" provides details about why the action is important, and "Oops, it does not work" prompts Roadie to query an online search engine for further information and offer more detailed instructions or images.
Thomas Dietterich, professor of computer science at Oregon State University, warns that the interface is just one piece of the puzzle. For it to work, every component of every device in a network must be able to detect the most minute detail about its functions, such as whether its cord is plugged in or not. Plus, manufacturers have to buy in, outfitting commercial products with artificial intelligence. Those two hurdles explain why, while Roadie is essentially ready for the market now, it may be at least two years before it actually appears in your entertainment center.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.