Siri Creator SRI Spins Off a New Virtual Assistant

Photograph by Asger Carlsen/Getty Images

SRI International, the Silicon Valley research institute that developed Siri, is once again dipping its toe into the virtual personal assistant pool. On Wednesday it revealed it has spun off a new company called Tempo AI, which is using SRI’s artificial intelligence technology to create a smart calendar app for the iPhone that can infer relevant information from a user’s address book, e-mail, and even daily habits.

Tempo’s app—available as a free download in the iTunes store—is a very simple concept with a lot of underlying functionality, says Tempo Chief Executive Raj Singh, a veteran of Skyfire before joining SRI. The app replaces the calendar in the iPhone with a much richer interface and connects to multiple user accounts: personal and work e-mail, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Yelp, and the iPhone’s address book. From there, Tempo starts parsing those accounts for useful information related to appointments and populates that information in the calendar.

The app isn’t just attaching e-mail addresses and phone numbers to names appearing in your schedule. It’s intuitively determining the intent and context of any given meeting, Singh says. For instance, if you were to create a simple event reading “Meet John at Starbucks,” Tempo would be able to determine which John of the many in your address book, as well as which Starbucks out of the hundreds in your city.

It does this by parsing your e-mail looking for any recent conversations referencing someone name John. For instance if you just had an e-mail exchange with John Smith discussing your meeting, Tempo would have no trouble applying that context, says Singh. If there weren’t something as obvious as a recent e-mail trail, Tempo wouldn’t be lost, Singh adds. The cloud-based intelligence in the app would apply heuristic methods to determine the best possible candidate for “John,” analyzing past meeting history, frequency of contact, and numerous other factors, Singh says.

As for location, Tempo can tap into Foursquare, identifying the Starbucks you check into most, or look for clues in your e-mail exchanges or calendar history. Once Tempo has all the data it can collect, it inserts it directly into the calendar, adding contact info, maps, phone numbers, conference bridges, and passcodes, even flight info. If there is more than one likely choice for a bit of information, Tempo will present the user with multiple options.

“Tempo will pick up on the semantics of the event,” Singh says. “Right now we’re focused on the 80 percent most common type of meetings.” That means Tempo is best at parsing such events as business meetings, conference appointments, travel plans, dinners, and birthdays. But Singh says the goal is quickly to expand Tempo’s vocabulary and conceptual awareness—as well as tap into new information sources such as Evernote and Facebook—to create a greater level of contextual understanding. “We want Tempo to know what to do when you opened up an event that says ‘gym’ or ‘anniversary.’”

Other companies have tackled the smart calendar, most notably Cue (formerly Greplin), which has evolved from a personal data search tool into an app that generates a snapshot of your day by scraping data from e-mail, calendars, social media, and apps. The big difference between Cue and Tempo, Singh says, is that Tempo has built its technology on the notion of a traditional calendar. Cue automatically searches your data to generate events. Tempo puts the calendar directly under the user’s control. You create the event and Tempo plugs in the context, says Singh.

Tempo came out of the same SRI group that created Siri and fundamentally uses the same artificial intelligence and semantics technology to produce its results, but Singh says Tempo uses a “push-based” rather than a “pull-based” approach to gathering its data. Singh described personal assistant technology like Siri as “broad but shallow”—you can ask it anything, but there are limits to what it can do.

Tempo’s scope is narrower, but within that narrow context it can accomplish much more, he says. For instance, Tempo is developing intelligent reminder capabilities for the app. Instead of alerting you about every appointment automatically 10 minutes before it occurs, Tempo could know what appointments you’re generally late for based on past history. It would then provide some extra prodding to ensure you arrive on time, Singh says.

Tempo is now officially an independent startup, spun off from SRI just as Siri was in 2007 before being acquired by Apple in 2010 (SRI launched another virtual assistant company, Desti, last year). Singh says SRI has provided Tempo with an undisclosed amount of seed funding, as well as critical access to its patents and research, but the fledgling company will be seeking independent funding shortly.

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