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Intelligent Futures in Task Assistance

By Ryen W. White

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 65 No. 11, Pages 35-39
10.1145/3528083

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Tasks are the primary unit of personal and professional productivity. They describe activity toward an objective. Tasks can be explicitly specified, for example, in a to-do list, or inferred from user behavior and context, for example, during search engine interaction. Task management software, including to-do applications such as Todoist, Google Tasks, and Microsoft To Do, is a multibillion-dollar industry, with large gains forecast over the next few years. We can improve individual and team task productivity through a mixture of education on best practices and intelligent task assistance. There are many strategies for the former—Getting Things Done (GTD)1 is one example—and there are plentiful opportunities for the computer science community to spearhead the latter. For example, by investing more in task-related research and engineering in areas such as natural language processing (NLP), machine learning (ML), and human-computer interaction (HCI). Among other things, intelligent task assistance can help people prioritize their task backlogs, plan their daily agendas, decompose their complex tasks into manageable steps, ensure their commitments to others are met, and help automate common activities.

Helping people make progress toward task completion is the primary objective of task assistance. Few intelligent systems offer end-to-end completion support, with some exceptions, for example, task-oriented dialog systems for, say, ticket reservations. Search engines provide result lists that serve as starting points for post-query navigation. Digital assistants such as Alexa or Google Assistant provide situational reminders for people to perform tasks at an appropriate time or in the appropriate location. Dedicated task management applications provide a means of storing and organizing tasks but rely on users to drive activities such as scheduling and completion. These challenges are not restricted to individuals. Teams may also track tasks carefully, via dedicated project management tools, for example, Trello, Asana, and monday.com. However, task management requires significant human intervention, with limited system intelligence. Experienced professionals, using established project management protocols (for example, Kanban boards, Gantt charts), are often required to manage team tasks.

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