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Start-up developing new Web interaction paradigm

The secretive start-up Siri plans to make the interface to the Internet more usable by mere mortals.

In the midst of the financial meltdown and a contentious upcoming election, you might think the U.S. government and taxpayers are just funding wars, bank bailouts, and bridges to nowhere or somewhere. But this is the same government that funded the Internet way back when and is also funding the next generation of technologies that will make the current Internet seem like a Model-T.

Over the last several years, the U.S. government--via DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) grants--has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in PAL, an acronym for "Personalized Assistant that Learns." Smarter software and networks and augmenting human intelligence are useful in times of war and peace.

As part of the PAL project, more than $200 million of DARPA money has been poured into CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes) over the last five years. CALO has been run out of SRI International with the assistance of 25 research organizations and 400 researchers.

Several companies, including Radar Networks, Farecast (acquired by Microsoft) and Adapx, have been spun out of SRI based on some facet of CALO technology. The latest, Siri, was founded in December last year and has raised $8.5 million in series A funding from Menlo Ventures and Morgenthaler Ventures.

At this point, Siri's management is being secretive about what the company is developing. The elevator pitch goes something like, "Users' online lives are becoming more complicated and getting out of control for mainstream users. What if there was an easy way for normal users (non-power users) to ask the Internet to help them."

According to the Siri PR pitch, the product is "a new interaction paradigm for the consumer Internet experience that applies intelligence at the interface." The company expects to release a beta version of its initial product in the first half of 2009, according to Dag Kittlaus, a former Telenor Mobile and Motorola executive who is a co-founder and CEO of the company.

"We have to be careful at this stage," Kittlaus told me. "We don't like to play these games, but we need to keep a tight lid on what we are specifically doing. We have some original ideas of what the product is going to do, but we don't want to spark ideas among potential competitors." Those competitors would likely be masters of the Internet with large Internet footprints and research prowess like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo.

Kittlaus did allow that Siri has more than a dozen partners, presumably large, well-established distribution players that can help build a consumer market for Siri's product. Unlike most Web start-ups, Siri has a business model, Kittlaus claimed. "We have good business models, both existing and emerging. We think CPA (cost per action) is the future, and this specific application is good for CPA and we are partnering on that."

He also touted the pedigree of the company's current cadre of 19 employees. "They are mostly engineers from Yahoo, Google, SRI, NASA, and Xerox PARC," he said. The chief architect of the CALO project, Adam Cheyer is a co-founder and vice president of engineering at Siri, and Tom Gruber, a well-known artificial intelligence and semantic Web expert, is a co-founder and CTO.

Cheyer described CALO as superset of what Siri is developing. "The CALO project is building an automated assistant to help manage and improve your life. The technology spans all aspects of interaction--natural language processing, speech recognition, and planning and reasoning capabilities--and interfaces with all kinds of systems, such as email and contacts," he said.

SRI International

"Learning in the wild is core focus," he continued. "We want it to improve over time and learn from users with no coaching and without changing any code. We are taking the key elements from the project to commercialize it in a form that will delight users. We are not building systems that do things but that learn how to do things."

CALO sounds like a representation of the famous Apple Knowledge Navigator video from 1987.

"Siri is a subset of that concept," Cheyer said. "We have to keep in mind existing user behavior. It will feel like something close to what people use a lot. We will add speech recognition and other features as we go. We don't want to take such a leap that people cannot identify with it. We'll do things similar to but more advanced than what we do now. The longer term vision is the Knowledge Navigator, although it is an early chapter now and it might look different than that."

According to Gruber, intelligence at the interface allows the computers to make recommendations, like a personal assistant:

The interfaces we use to interact with the world's information are getting smarter. Web portals gave us someone else's idea of the content we should see. Then came search engines, which let us tell the system what we want, one query at a time. We are about to see the next wave -- intelligence at the interface -- in which the system knows about us, our information, and our physical environment. With knowledge about our context, an intelligent system can make recommendations and act on our behalf.
Tom Gruber

Siri may be working on more intelligent Web interfaces that can make inferences based a wide variety of user activities (the "lifestream"), learning over time on its own, and then taking actions on behalf of users. For example, if you are booking travel or looking for a restaurant, Siri would know your preferences and about travel sites or restaurants, integrating data and context from multiple sources to deliver personal assistance. This could be especially useful in mobile scenarios where you don't want to wade through pages of search results or deal with complex interactions.

Tom Gruber: "If we want our technology to have world-changing impact, bring it to the interface: get useful knowledge from all those intelligent people on the Internet give the benefit of this knowledge to everyone. " Tom Gruber

We'll have to wait for next year, if the company stays on schedule, to see whether Siri can really define a new paradigm for experiencing the Web.