Stefan Marti at MIT’s Media Lab Speech Interface Group has come up with a idea he calls the Autonomous Active Intermediary. This is essentially a device that acts as a facilitator between a person and their communications network. To this end, Stefan has come up with The Cellular Squirrel, an agent that sits between you and your mobile phone.

The basic concept goes something like this: mobile phones are very intrusive and distracting and integrating them into your personal situations is never elegant. So why not do something really natural and familiar to everybody, like have a squirrel take your calls!

This is how Stefan puts it:

The conversational agent is able to converse with caller and callee—at the same time, mediating between them, and possibly suggesting modality crossovers. It deals with incoming communication attempts when the user cannot or does not want to. It’s a dual conversational agent since it can converse with both user and caller simultaneously, mediating between them.

Oh, I can really see how that’s going to turn out…

Caller: Hello, is that Pete?

Squirrel: No, this is his squirrel.

Caller: His squirrel? O-o-k-a-a-y… can I talk to Pete?

Squirrel: What’s it about? He’s pretty busy.

Caller: Um, I’d really rather discuss this with him than with a squirrel.

Squirrel (sighs): Oh very well, I’ll see if he can talk to you.

Squirrel (to Pete): Hey dude, there’s some glue-sniffer on the line, too good to talk to a squirrel. Whaddya want me to do?

Pete: I’m busy nailing up this wainscotting, can you take a message?

Squirrel (to Pete): Sure chief, anything you say.

Squirrel (to caller): Well nuts to you fella – he says he don’t want to talk jive with no squirrel-hater. State your business or shuffle off to Buffalo.

I don’t want to seem like I’m completely ridiculing this idea. I can see how it could be really cool. One of the (many) things I like about Philip Pullman’s amazing ‘His Dark Materials’ books is the animal daemons that Lyra and her folk have with them always. I’d really like a little animal familiar, especially in this enlightened time when nobody holds silly superstitious beliefs that can get you hung as a witch. Much.

I kind of fancy a parrot, myself, it being in keeping with my piratical bent & all. It obviously leapt pretty smartly into Stefan’s mind also, because he already has a working prototype of one of those as well:

But for Stefan, the squirrel is obviously the agent du jour. I have to admit, it has some surreal cachet. I long to be able to say:

“Hey man, good to see you! We should do lunch. I’ll get my squirrel to talk to your squirrel and we’ll sort something out!”