CORVALLIS - Computer scientists at Oregon State University have developed a new "TaskTracer" system that could revolutionize the way people work with their computers - it automatically organizes all the materials needed on various projects, and should provide order, simplicity and convenience to a world that is too often paralyzed by information overload.

The first version of the system, which taps into the power of machine learning and artificial intelligence, is currently being tested by other experts, and may be available for commercial use soon, the researchers say.

The problem, the OSU engineers say, is that human beings do not live in a neat, tidy world in which they work on only one job. They flip back and forth between different tasks, wrestle with vast quantities of information, and face multiple demands that may require different documents and other supporting materials. People get interrupted and forget where they were. They waste time and energy trying to pick up the pieces.

The solution, according to OSU researchers, is a computer system that tracks what you were doing on each of your tasks, what you were using to accomplish those tasks, where you were when you were interrupted, and even what you may need to do next.

"Our whole idea is to create a list of tasks you are working on at any one time, organize everything around those tasks and let you reclaim your desktop computer," said Jon Herlocker, an OSU assistant professor of computer science, who developed this new system along with professor Tom Dietterich, a pioneer in the development of "intelligent" computing systems.

"Current computer systems just assume you're only working on one job, but that's not the way life is," Herlocker said. "In my work at a university, for instance, I might be simultaneously teaching a class, preparing for a meeting, writing a new grant proposal, working on a research project or talking to a reporter. And the materials I need for each of those jobs are totally different."

With the new TaskTracer system, which Herlocker and Dietterich designed to work with Microsoft Windows and other popular operating systems, the computer keeps an eye on your jobs at all times. It notes what spreadsheets you use, what e-mail is relevant, what Powerpoint presentations you were creating, what background materials might help, and what web pages or folders are involved.

And it also can address the issue of knowledge "re-use"- identifying and making available materials that were used on a similar job done previously, which might serve as a handy template to do the current work.

So just by telling the computer you're going to continue preparation for your noon class, all of the materials that you need pop up, ready to go, organized to make your life easier. "Right now we have a system that works primarily with a personal computer, but conceptually we can take this idea further in the future," Dietterich said. "You could integrate it with a telephone and caller ID, for instance. Maybe someone calls you and you can't remember their name or what you were doing with them, but all of the appropriate background information comes right up on your computer."

Speech recognition software is also included, Dietterich said, so that the outgoing side of each conversation can be recorded and retrieved as another aid to performing the task at hand. The incoming side of phone conversations is not recorded because of legal and privacy concerns.

Systems such as this, the OSU scientists say, should make an enormous difference in people's productivity, reduce their stress level, simplify their lives and ensure that they lose less information in the constant shuffle of jobs. It should also be invaluable for people who are working on projects with a larger group and need assistance in finding out what others have done or where they are at with various tasks.

"People tend to break their time down into discrete units of work, moving back and forth from one job to another," Dietterich said. "It's time for our computer systems to recognize this and help out."

The power of intelligent computers that can record your activities and learn about the way you approach jobs is part of what will make the "TaskTracer" system more effective, the OSU researchers say.

"Ultimately, the computer itself will learn your operational approaches and you'll need to tell it less and less," Herlocker said. "It will just watch what you are doing and then predict what you'll need."

The value of systems such as this should be apparent to anyone who does many jobs at a time, the experts say - business executives, employees with multiple job functions, lawyers for whom "multi-tasking" on a myriad of different cases is a way of life.

Since the computer is carefully tracking what you are doing and how you go about doing it, special privacy interfaces and data encryption tools will be provided to protect personal privacy, the researchers said. All data collected is kept on the individual computer, and the system can be taught not to record sensitive data such as passwords, credit card numbers, and so forth.

This technology was created with more than $885,000 in support from federal research funding. Continued research with users in a real work environment should help identify possible improvements in the system, the OSU researchers said, and ways in which its services can be expanded. More details on the system are available on the web at http://eecs.oregonstate.edu/TaskTracer.

Corporate partners are also now being sought who would be interested in having a few of their employees use the existing system and allow OSU scientists to measure its effectiveness in the workplace.