Monday, December 22, 2008

Another mini-wave of intelligent assistants

There was an article in The New York Times on December 13, 2008 by John Markoff entitled "A Software Secretary That Takes Charge" which mentions a few of the latest attempts at creating commercial-scale intelligent user assistants. I am skeptical that these latest attempts are what they hope to be, but it is nice to see that people are still trying. As Markoff puts it:

Shouldn't your computer know a reasonable amount about your likes and dislikes? Wouldn't it be great if it could anticipate your needs and take action without you pressing a key?

Booking travel and restaurant reservations, rearranging meeting schedules or even taking a first cut at reading e-mail are among the mundane tasks that have remained beyond the reach of our PCs for decades.

But now a new generation of Internet technologies, coupled with the investment of more than a third of a billion dollars, may be making meaningful progress.

The concept of a software personal assistant has long captured the imagination of a generation of science fiction writers and computer scientists. Oliver G. Selfridge, the artificial-intelligence pioneer who died this month, is credited with coining the term "intelligent agent," as well as the idea of a computer software "demon" -- a simple software program that could monitor its environment and make appropriate responses when changes occur.

With the arrival of personal computing in the 1980s, the idea took the form of highly choreographed "vision" statements from many Silicon Valley companies. The most memorable was the Knowledge Navigator video, by John Sculley, then chief executive of Apple, in which an interactive assistant on a video display, clad in a bow tie, does research for a college professor and nags him to return his mother's phone call.

But efforts to build useful computerized assistants have consistently ended in failure, including some of the Valley's largest "craters" -- ambitious undertakings ending as spectacular flameouts. The failures include General Magic, originally backed by Mr. Sculley, E-speak by Hewlett-Packard and Hailstorm by Microsoft.

A Pentagon research project and two Silicon Valley start-up companies are about to try again.

His phrasing may be right on the mark, "may be making meaningful progress", with the emphasis on "may."

The simple truth is that if a quick glance does not completely dazzle you with its blind simplicity and all-knowing competence, then you probably are not looking at an intelligent agent. It should be so obvious that the "may" caveat is not needed.

Nonetheless, there may be some industrial-scale developments progressing even if consumer-scale is not yet here. Markoff mentions the SRI International CALO project. From the CALO Web site:

CALO: Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes

SRI International is leading the development of new software that could revolutionize how computers support decision-makers.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), under its Personalized Assistant that Learns (PAL - download brochure) program, has awarded SRI three phases of a five-year contract to develop an enduring personalized cognitive assistant. DARPA expects the PAL program to generate innovative ideas that result in new science, new approaches to current problems, new algorithms and tools, as well as new technology of significant value to the military.

The team dubbed its new project CALO, for Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes. The name was inspired by the Latin word "calonis," which means "soldier's servant." The goal of the project is to create cognitive software systems, that is, systems that can reason, learn from experience, be told what to do, explain what they are doing, reflect on their experience, and respond robustly to surprise.

The software, which learns by interacting with and being advised by its users, will handle a broad range of interrelated decision-making tasks that have in the past been resistant to automation. A CALO will have the capability to engage in and lead routine tasks, and to assist when the unexpected happens. To focus the research on real problems and ensure the software meets requirements such as privacy, security, and trust, the CALO project researchers themselves are using the technology during its development.

SRI is leading the multi-disciplinary CALO project team and, beyond participating in the research program, is also responsible for overall project direction, management, and development of prototypes. The project is bringing together leading computer scientists and researchers in artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing, knowledge representation, human-computer interaction, flexible planning, and behavioral studies.

That's a term I was not aware of, "enduring personalized cognitive assistant", or EPCA. CALO was funded by DARPA back in 2003. DARPA has also used the term "enduring, personalized, office assistant." I was also not aware of the term "Personalized Assistant that Learns (PAL)." I should probably spend more time reading DARPA solicitations and announcements.

-- Jack Krupansky

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