And as for our mobile phones, it's not just at work they distract us. If we're driving, a stream of texts or calls is potentially hazardous. And you may have dined out with someone who monitors Facebook instead of enjoying the here and now.
Understand social situations, be more helpful
The answer to all this daily disruption could be 'considerate systems', according to Carnegie Mellon professor Ted Selker. Selker's research in artificial intelligence looks at whether computers can become context-aware. Whether they can react appropriately to who's around and what those people are doing.
In the world of work, Selker's been experimenting with teleconferencing. Have you ever experienced the ups and downs of a teleconference? It's frustrating when one person dominates the airwaves. You're itching to chip in but you don't get a chance and the moment is lost.
Selker's been using intelligent agents to measure when one person has been talking for too long and others have been too quiet. When they judge that someone's dominating, they pipe up: 'Turn taking?' or 'Any thoughts, Suzanne?'
This automated system has apparently been successful at nudging people's behaviour. With the intelligent agents on the line, Selker found dominant people talked 20% less and quiet people talked 20% more.
Turn it down, love!
Selker's future projects may include a context-aware TV that senses how many people are in the room and whether they're talking. If 2 people start a conversation, the TV turns its volume down to a level that doesn't interfere. And if the TV senses your baby crying in the next room, it can turn the volume up or down as you wish.
And imagine an intelligent email program. You've written a rant and intelligent agents pick up on the language you've used. You get a nudge to reflect on what you're writing.
Ted Selker's seminar on considerate systems was at Queen Mary University of London, 12 November 2014.