By Elise Ackerman
One of the most significant advances in artificial intelligence in a decade could soon be coming to an iPhone near you.
Dag Kittlaus, chief executive of Siri, a company that emerges from stealth mode this morning, demonstrates. "Siri, I want to see Star Trek," he tells his iPhone.
Within milliseconds, the phone displays a result that shows a nearby theater where the movie is playing. If Kittlaus wanted, he could click on the result and Siri would buy the ticket for him. Or he could ask Siri, a Scandinavian girl's name that means "beautiful victory," to find a theater closer to his home in south San Jose.
Siri can also book restaurants and airline flights, buy just about anything the Internet has to offer, reschedule appointments on the fly and answer trivia questions like,
"How many calories are in a banana?"
"The future of search isn't search," said Kittlaus. "It is a conversation with someone you trust."
Experts in artificial intelligence, or AI, say Siri will either be the first "intelligent agent" that responds to natural language — or the most recent failure in a series of spectacularly unsuccessful attempts to write software code that replicates some basic functions of the human brain.
Precursors to Siri included Apple's "Knowledge Navigator," touted by then Chief Executive John Sculley in 1987, and a project Microsoft dubbed "Hailstorm," which got canceled before it was launched.
"I am skeptical of anything t hat uses the word intelligent to describe itself," said Charles Petrie, a senior research scientist at Stanford University's Computer Science Department and a member of Stanford's renowned artificial intelligence lab.
Skepticism was also the initial reaction of Tom Gruber, a computer scientist who began working on AI-related projects in the early 1980s. After two decades of research, Gruber was all too aware of the limitations of machines.
But within five minutes Gruber realized that Kittlaus and his co-founder, Adam Cheyer, had cracked open "the grand opportunity." Gruber immediately signed on as chief technology officer.
What impressed him so much was Siri's ability to offer a consumer product built on breakthroughs in machine learning — computer systems that learn from experience and natural language processing and something geeks call the programmable Web software code that let Web sites share their data.
Siri could use the code, also known as APIs or application programming interfaces, to search for the cheapest flight to Denver on a site like Kayak.com and then add it to a Yahoo calendar. Or it could scan AllMenus.com and Yelp to find if there was a popular sushi place within four blocks.
Siri's abilities are well beyond those of Google and the other major search engines, who are still primarily content-indexing systems, Gruber said.
Siri is not the first company to realize that knitting APIs together might be useful. Rearden Commerce, of Foster City, already offers a Web-based personal assistant for business customers that can book travel, coordinate schedules, control costs and more.
But Norman Winarsky, a member of Siri's board of directors, said Siri is much more than just an integrator of Web services. Indeed, it's the culmination of one of the government's largest artificial-intelligence projects.
In 2003, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is most famous for sponsoring the research that led to the development of the Internet, awarded SRI International the first of several grants to develop CALO, a Cognitive Agent that Learns and Observes.
Over the next five years, Darpa invested $150 million in the project, said Winarsky, who is a vice president at SRI International. Hundreds of computer scientists and nearly three dozen universities and corporate research centers worked on parts of the CALO problem.
"I think we are going to surprise a lot of people with what's possible now," Kittlaus said. Kittlaus was an entrepreneur-in-residence at SRI International when he co-founded Siri in December 2007 with Adam Cheyer, the chief architect of CALO, and Gruber.
A former executive at Motorola and Telenor Mobile, the Scandinavian telecom giant, Kittlaus imagined putting Siri's intelligence on the iPhone from the start. "The iPhone singlehandedly changed mobile," he said. People were ready to do all kinds of new things with their phone, provided it was easy, fun and free.
Siri's business model is simple. As a virtual agent, Siri will ask companies to give it a cut of the transactions it brokers. Regular people won't have to pay for the service.
"It is one of the first applications of AI that could really benefit consumers," said Nova Spivack, chief executive of Radar Networks, another spin-out of the CALO project that is developing new Web technologies.
Spivack, who has seen a demo of Siri but not yet tried the software, said a digital assistant with artificial intelligence could perform well provided its roles are limited to certain defined areas. For example, Siri will not be able to help someone choose a pet or provide relationship advice. But it could excel at automating tedious tasks, like finding cheap airport parking or a public bathroom with a diaper-changing table.
There won't be much room for error. Siri will need to prove that it is both reliable and secure in order to win consumer's trust. "It better do a really good job about getting me the reservation I wanted," Spivack said. "If it sends me on a wild goose chase, I will fire it, just as I would fire a real life assistant."