Could a Virtual Nurse or Doctor Be Your Future Facebook Best Friend?

Mar 3, 2009, 8:58 AM, Posted by Robert Hughes

Microsoft and their partner Intel have an understandable interest in promoting new computing fields. So the recent reference to a Jetsons-style future with a virtual personal assistant, named Laura, coming out of Microsoft makes sense – Laura can tailor responses and decisions to your personal situation and visual presentation.

The challenge for Laura gaining a significant following in the long run may be the number of people any of us can have a meaningful relationship with. As estimated by the Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, humans can have about 150 connections in a stable social network. Recent analysis of Facebook data by Cameron Marlow reinforces the hypothesis, along with the observation that the number of friends a person frequently interacts with is typically quite small. At the upper end, when you go much beyond the 150, the cognitive limits of our species become a constraint. Now all this is far from precise, but the main point is that we do have limits, and preferences among possible types of friends. So what kind of person might make the list?

How about one that knows your health history, routine behaviors, and likes and dislikes. One who you can trust unconditionally, who could give you advice about how you could make your life more fulfilling, more healthful? In short, how about someone with the qualities that we often wish our nurses and doctors had? Could Laura be your future doctor or nurse and make it into your Dunbar 150? Might Laura be your best friend in 2020?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.