Documenting the Coming Singularity

Sunday, December 02, 2007

It is Time for a Real PDA

Picture this: Your meeting with the team is over, you say your goodbyes and walk down the hall to your office. Sitting in a tray near your desk are the pages of a transcript of the meeting, which ended only a few minutes ago. You call up the project that was the subject of the meeting on your screen, and you see that every assignment is already listed, every appointment is already scheduled. You thank your PDA, and she replies, "Any time, Barry."

This scenario, which has been portrayed in many a science fiction novel, may become the real deal not too many years from now. An artificial general intelligence who lives in your corporate network, organizes your work life without being asked, and converses with you in natural human language. If truth be told, you've often fantasized about asking her out for a drink.

Enter CALO, "a massive, four-year-old artificial-intelligence project to help computers understand the intentions of their human users."
Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and coordinated by SRI International, based in Menlo Park, CA, the project brings together researchers from 25 universities and corporations, in many areas of artificial intelligence, including machine learning, natural-language processing, and Semantic Web technologies. Each group works on pieces of CALO, which stands for "cognitive assistant that learns and organizes."

Adam Cheyer, program director of the artificial-intelligence center at SRI, explains that CALO tries to assist users in three ways: by helping them manage information about key people and projects, by understanding and organizing information from meetings, and by learning and automating routine tasks. For example, CALO can learn about the people and projects that are important to a user's work life by paying attention to e-mail patterns. It can then categorize and prioritize information for the user, based on the source of the information and the projects to which it is connected. The system can also apply this type of understanding to meetings, using its speech-recognition system to make a transcription of what's said there, and its understanding of the user's projects and contacts to process the transcription intelligently into to-do lists and appointments. Finally, a user can teach CALO routine tasks such as purchasing books online and searching for bed-and-breakfasts that meet specific criteria. CALO can interact with other people, taking on tasks such as scheduling meetings, coordinating among people's schedules, and making decisions, such as deciding to reschedule a meeting if a key member becomes unable to attend.
Look for the progeny of CALO to appear first in large corporations, filter down to medium-sized businesses, and eventually arrive in your own home network. I can't wait.

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