Siri Challenger Sherpa Learns English, Arrives in the U.S.

Siri Challenger Sherpa Learns English, Arrives in the U.S.
Xabier Uribe-Etxebarria, Founder and CEO of Sherpa
Courtesy Sherpa

Voice-controlled digital assistant Sherpa just hit the U.S. scene, but unlike other Siri challengers, it comes with some overseas work experience. Sherpa introduced its Spanish-language Android app in October, and it’s since risen up the Google Play charts in Spain and Latin America. Now the app has learned English, and on Wednesday it launched in the U.S. via the Play store.

Most virtual assistants powered by natural language processing are taught to do specific tasks well but tend to come up short when given unfamiliar assignments. For instance, Apple’s Siri excels at jobs like making calendar appointments and dictating text messages but can become confounded by more general requests for information, usually resorting to simple Web searches.

Sherpa Chief Executive Officer Xabier Uribe-Etxebarria says he set out to create a natural language platform that had a much greater scope of understanding and could easily be applied to new tasks without “training” the app to perform them. He also wanted to create a language-independent platform, one that understood meaning and intent regardless of a language’s vocabulary or syntax.

To that end, Uribe-Etxebarria and his machine-learning team developed a sort of meta-language, encompassing 250,000 semantic concepts accompanied by 5,000 rules used to order those concepts. Sherpa uses off-the-shelf speech-recognition services (currently, Google’s speech API) to translate commands into its meta-language, then it parses meaning and intent from the resulting string of concepts.

The result is a flexible virtual assistant that can easily execute new tasks, Uribe-Etxebarria says. Sherpa’s repertoire is constantly growing as it hooks into new apps and information sources. For instance, Sherpa has struck a deal with PayPal, allowing users to make payments with the app via voice command. And it taps into Twitter’s API, letting users navigate their Twitter feeds—toggling between mentions, direct messages, and home stream views—through voice prompts. For general information requests, Sherpa has developed a nifty information card format, which aggregates info from a variety of sources, from LinkedIn profiles to Wikipedia entries.

“We’ve gone beyond Siri in many cases,” Uribe-Etxebarria says. And, given the flexibility of its technology, he adds, Sherpa can continue to add new services and functions at a much quicker space than its competitors.

Still, Sherpa is entering an increasingly crowded space. New virtual assistants are popping up left and right: Some, such as Incredible Labs’ Donna, are focused on specific tasks, while others, including Nuance Communications’ Dragon technologies, are spanning devices to try and create a single virtual assistant for all things. And, of course, Google and Apple are building their speech technologies directly into their phones’ operating systems—it’s hard to argue with the convenience of that big fat Siri button.

Sherpa got off the ground in Bilbao, Spain, but it now also has offices in Redwood City, Calif. It’s raised $1.6 million in angel funding.

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