October 5, 2011

So their eyes are growing hazy
cos they want to turn it on
so their minds are soft and lazy, well…
give em what they want

10,000 Maniacs – Candy Everybody Wants

One of the stocks that I used to kick around in the 1990s was that of a now long dead company called General Magic. Back then, I looked into the company and learned that it was, in essence, divested from Apple in 1990. It was made up of former Apple employees and Apple held 10% of the company.

Apple has been thinking about the post PC era (that we’re actually entering now, according to them) since the 1980s. Here’s Apple’s Knowledge Navigator concept from 1987:

This wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, so they spun it off into General Magic.

If you’ve seen Apple’s Siri in action, that’s the type of thing that General Magic wanted to do back in the 1990s. With the old Portico system, users called into the service, rather than the service running on the phone, as is the case with Siri. Here’s an almost unwatchable promo for General Magic’s Portico product (circa 1997):

If you’re interested in Siri, definitely read Wired’s, Bill and Andy’s Excellent Adventure II from 1994. The point is that Apple and Apple alumni have been beating around this bush for a very long time.

Flash forward to what Apple unveiled yesterday:

Now, what’s in a name?

Look closely at the name: Siri. What letters stand out?

See it yet?

S i R I.

SRI = Stanford Research Institute.

It turns out that Apple’s Siri used to be SRI’s Siri, and SRI’s Siri is… Are you ready? A spinoff of DARPA’s PAL (Perceptive Assistant that Learns) program, which SRI called CALO (Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes).

This is SRI’s CALO information page:

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 Perceptive Assistant that Learns (PAL) program, has awarded SRI the first two 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 and fundamental approaches to current problems, and new algorithms and tools, and to yield new technology of significant value to the military.

SRI has dubbed its new project CALO, for Cognitive Agent 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 will learn 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. It 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 to ensure the software meets requirements such as privacy, security, and trust, the CALO project researchers will themselves use the technology during its development.

SRI is leading the multidisciplinary CALO project team, and, beyond participating in the research program, is also responsible for overall project direction and management and the development of prototypes.

Here’s more from Venture Beat, Shadowy Government Project Spins Off Siri to Help Direct Your Affairs:

Conspiracy theorists will love this one: A computerized assistant that can help you manage your day to day life, built atop an artificial intelligence platform developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the United States’ internal military research group. Siri, the startup building the assistant, is today announcing $8.5 million in venture funding.

As befits its spookish origins, Siri isn’t saying a great deal yet about what it will do. Co-founder Dag Kittlaus, who licensed technology from DARPA’s CALO (Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes) project, calls it “a smarter, more personal interaction paradigm for the Internet.” Unfortunately, that’s about as specific as calling Google “a thing that finds stuff.” Those who want a sneak peek at Siri will instead have to look to CALO.

So here’s what we know about CALO: It’s a concerted effort to take the first real step toward artificial intelligence, with five years of work and $200 million in funding to date. Rather than being immediately useful, it learns about the user over time, much like a real personal assistant would. As it learns, it becomes capable of making logical associations and initiating its own actions.

Siri, Apple's Implementation of DARPA Sponsored Artificial Intelligence Technology

Siri, Apple’s Implementation of DARPA Sponsored Artificial Intelligence Technology

People are going to pay a lot of money to have their asses tracked to within a couple of meters by a device running a civilian version of DARPA’s soldier’s servant software.

The most disturbing aspect of this is not what the iPhone 4s is going to be phoning home to Apple (which is unknown), or the invasion of The Complex into most aspects of our lives, but the fact that, in general, people would think that you were nuts for having these reservations at all. I mean, what could possibly be wrong with re-purposed DoD AI software running on a mass market consumer device that persistently reveals the user’s location to the state?

Ah well, give em what they want.

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