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TECHNOLOGY REVIEW MARCH /APRIL
Search is the gateway to the Internet
for most people; for many of us, it has
become second nature to distill a task
into a set of keywords that will lead to the
required tools and information. But Adam
Cheyer, cofounder of Silicon Valley startup
Siri, envisions a new way for people to inter-
act with the services available on the Inter-
net: a "do engine" rather than a search engine.
Siri is working on virtual personal-assistant
software, which would help users complete
tasks rather than just collect information.
Cheyer, Siri's vice president of engineer-
ing, says that the software takes the user's
context into account, making it highly useful
and flexible. "In order to get a system that can
act and reason, you need to get a system that
can interact and understand," he says.
Siri traces its origins to a military-funded
artificial-intelligence project called CALO,
for "cognitive assistant that learns and orga-
nizes," that is based at the research institute
SRI International. The project's leaders---
including Cheyer---combined traditionally
isolated approaches to artificial intelligence
to try to create a personal-assistant program
that improves by interacting with its user.
Cheyer, while still at SRI, took a team of
engineers aside and built a sample consumer
version; colleagues finally persuaded him to
start a company based on the prototype. Siri
licenses its core technology from SRI.
Mindful of the sometimes spectacular fail-
ure of previous attempts to create a virtual
personal assistant, Siri's founders have set
their sights conservatively. The initial ver-
sion, to be released this year, will be aimed at
mobile users and will perform only specific
types of functions, such as helping make res-
ervations at restaurants, check flight status,
or plan weekend activities. Users can type or
speak commands in casual sentences, and
the software deciphers their intent from the
context. Siri is connected to multiple online
services, so a quick interaction with it can
accomplish several small tasks that would
normally require visits to a number of web-
sites. For example, a user can ask Siri to find
a midpriced Chinese restaurant in a specific
part of town and make a reservation there.
Recent improvements in computer proces-
sor power have been essential in bringing
this level of sophistication to a consumer
product, Cheyer says. Many of CALO's abili-
ties still can't be crammed into such products.
But the growing power of mobile phones
and the increasing speed of networks make it
possible to handle some of the processing at
Siri's headquarters and pipe the results back
to users, allowing the software to take on
tasks that just couldn't be done before.
"Search does what search does very well,
and that's not going anywhere anytime soon,"
says Dag Kittlaus, Siri's cofounder and CEO.
"[But] we believe that in five years, everyone's
going to have a virtual assistant to which they
delegate a lot of the menial tasks."
While the software will be intelligent and
useful, the company has no aspiration to
make it seem human. "We think that we can
create an incredible experience that will help
you be more e cient in your life, in solving
problems and the tasks that you do," Cheyer
says. But Siri is always going to be just a tool,
not a rival to human intelligence: "We're very
practical minded." ---Erica Naone
Adam Cheyer is leading the design of powerful software
that acts as a personal aide.
Siri cofounder Tom Gruber vol-
unteered Adam Cheyer to par-
ticipate in a conversation with
the software. Gruber explains
the artificial-intelligence tasks
behind its responses.
"The user can ask a broad
question like this because Siri
has information that gives clues
about what the user intends. For
example, the software might
store data about the user s loca-
tion, schedule, and past activities.
Siri can deal with open-ended
questions within specific areas,
such as entertainment or travel."
"Siri pulls information rele-
vant to the user s question from
a variety of Web services and
tools. In this case, it checks the
weather, event listings, and direc-
tories of local attractions and
uses machine learning to select
certain options based on the
user s past preferences. Siri can
connect to various Web appli-
cations and then integrate the
results into a single response."
"Siri interprets this reply
in the context of the exist-
ing conversation, using it to
refine the user s request."
"The software offers spe-
cific suggestions based on the
user s personal preferences and
its ability to categorize. Because
Siri is task-oriented, rather than
a search engine, it offers to buy
tickets that the user selects."
"By now, the conversation has
narrowed enough that all the user
has to do is click on his choice."
"Siri compiles informa-
tion about the event, such as
band members, directions, and
prices, and structures it in a
logical way. It also handles the
task of finding out what s avail-
able and getting the tickets."
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