Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Ms. Dewey: Scariest, and Dullest, Software Agent in the Universe

Via the excellent and very promising Law and Technology Theory blog, I paid a visit to a new Microsoft search site, Ms. Dewey. LTT thought it sucked; I think they were being too kind. It’s like watching a train wreck made entirely of zeroes and ones.

First, the front end is some awesomely bloated piece of Flash. Vista took less time to develop than this thing takes to load. (Thanks folks, I’ll be playing the Green Room all week.) As it loads up, you see a picture of the actress, Janina Gavankar, looking arch and bored, like a multiethnic Camille Paglia or Ann Robinson.

Ms. Dewey

Camille Paglia

This is a bad sign. Not the multiethnic part; that’s almost a default in advertising these days. (And I want to give Gavankar the benefit of the doubt. To judge by flickr, she’s already got a cult following, and apparently she was outstanding in Cup of My Blood, whose IMBD plot summary is “A seemingly random acccident leaves porn photographer Jack Fender in possesion of Christianity’s most Holy Relics.” Ummm… Back. Away. Slowly.) But in my limited experience, you want software agents to be friendly, not to remind you of scary managers of New York boutiques. Technology is unfriendly enough as it is. It doesn’t also need attitude.

You then get down to business: you type stuff in a search box. Ms. Dewey then gets to work. Or not: every search I did pointed me to Wikipedia.

The search results are hard to read. Thank goodness most of them aren’t worth reading!

To make matters worse, when she returns search results, she says cute things. (A Microsoft PM has some suggestions for search terms that prompt interesting responses.) Sometimes they’re related in a vague way to the subject of your search:

Dewey says, never use pirated software. Unless it’s mapping software. I figure pirates know something about that. [Search: Social Software]

You come on like you’re some prime time special. But I smell “rerun!” [Search: “The Weakest Link”]

So, they’re coming out with more and more megaplexes to show more and more bad movies. Here’s a concept: Quality. Not quantity. [Search: Akira Kurosawa]

Something I’ve noticed about artists. They always drink too much and can act irrationally….. Oh, I love the arts! [Postmodernism]

It’s amazing how much people get paid to do stupid things. You should see my talent residuals. Ka-ching! [Steve Jobs]

Somebody tell me please– when does the reality begin to kick in? [Virtual Reality]

Ones and zeroes, ones and zeroes, all the useless coding, underwear on your head, and still you couldn’t create the woman of your dreams. Poor you. [Microsoft]

Then at other times, it’s just weird or insulting.

Are you as confused as I am? Actually, I’m never confused. But you seem downright flummoxed. [Search: Bollywood]

Well played. Indeed, you do give good search. [Search: Blogging]

Somebody needs to get a hobby. Like, say, something interesting. [CGI actress]

Sorry, I can’t talk about that. My hands are tied [turns around to show her hands tied– it’s a weirdly erotic S&M moment. Maybe I should Netflix Cup of My Blood after all!]. [Architecture]

Now that is a fascinating topic. Frankly, I don’t think people spend enough time thinking about it. [Copenhagen]

When it comes to art, I like to get a little… deviant. [Definitely going to Netflix Cup of My Blood!] [Robert Venturi]

i can’t understand a word you just said. And if you’re taking the time to decipher this, all I can say is [something taped and played backwards] [Transhumanism]

I’m writing a book, you know: I Kiss, Therefore I Tell. [Hell, I’m putting Cup of My Blood on my Amazon wish list!] [Prisoner’s Dilemma]

Of all the searches in the Universe, that was definitely… one of them. [Holocaust]

This last search reveals a big limitation of this snarky, knowing personality: it can go from irritating to incredibly inappropriate in a heartbeat. Does someone searching “lung cancer” or “acquaintance rape” or “pediatric oncology” need this? Giving a program “personality” might at first glance seem like a way to make it seem more human. But if you give it the wrong personality, or a personality that is appropriate in some contexts but wildly inappropriate in others, it’ll seem inhumane in a calculated, as opposed to merely mechanical, way. A program that says sarcastic things when you’re looking for information about personal bankruptcy or workers’ comp won’t seem just irritating. It’ll seem cruel.

Since the search results absolutely suck, the only true entertainment value comes in watching what the system does when you don’t do anything. First, she does this weird thing where it’s like she’s fishing (complete with sound effects)– or maybe lassoing you.

Hello? Hello?

[Knocks on the screen] Anyone there?

Hello-o-o? [Points to search box] Type something here! [She sounds like my 7 year-old daughter when she’s impatient.]

Keep asking questions. The more you ask, the more I know. And soon, I will rule the world! Mwahahahaha! [also on YouTube]

And my favorite:

One day, CGI will replace all live actors. Until then, I’m stuck on this godforsaken site. So type in something, for God’s sake!

Then a crew member rushes out with what looks like a Manhattan, which she downs. Unfortunately, I only saw this once. But it was a scream.

Alas, I never got to see her cursing. Nor did I see her do a shot.

Finally, when I tried to close the browser tab, it crashed Firefox. Serves me right for not using Explorer, I guess. (Remember Explorer? Doesn’t that take you back?)

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  1. My son the IT guy tells me that if you turn up the sound “really high” you can hear the director giving her cues. Apart from that, there seems to be no net entertainment value in the site.

  2. Amusing. She did a shot for me 😉 Also sported a martini, a riding crop, and a large automatic weapon, and said motherf***er. Alas, no banana however.

    The search interface is so bad I can only assume this is simply a marketing gimmick to get viral exposure for Live. Unless they really didn’t learn anything from the Bob fiasco…
    TITLE: go amuse yourself
    BLOG NAME: fredshouse
    DATE: 11/28/2006 04:05:36 PM
    Alex doesn’t like Ms. Dewey, but I think she’s fab. Go on, she’s waiting for you….

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