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CMU team to develop a software 'secretary'

Thursday, July 17, 2003

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

Computer scientist Dan Siewiorek spent six hours this week compiling an interim report on one of his research projects for a government agency. It was a necessary chore, but in terms of what he thinks is productive work, it also represented six hours down the hole.

Siewiorek will never get those six hours back, but he and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University are getting $7 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to begin developing the type of smart software that someday might compile such a report automatically.

They'll develop what might be called a "personalized cognitive assistant," sort of a personal secretary in the form of computer software. Such an assistant might recognize the difference between an e-mail from your boss and an e-mail offering discounted Viagra. It might be able to understand enough of the text of an e-mail to schedule a meeting or book an airline flight.

And, while it's compiling routine reports, the software might also go ahead and update an outmoded Web site that still refers to Gov. Tom Ridge or announces a company outing to Three Rivers Stadium.

"It's a very ambitious effort," said Ron Brachman, director of DARPA's Information Processing Technology Office, which has launched the new effort, called Perceptive Assistant that Learns, or PAL. Designing office software that has the ability to learn, to remember its user's personal preferences, to reason and to understand everyday communications between humans is so ambitious, he acknowledged, that it will be at least a couple more years before researchers really know what they'll be able to accomplish and when.

As the research-and-development arm of the Pentagon, DARPA is ultimately interested in developing software tools that will help military commanders. But the same sort of tools easily might benefit civilians in academia and business, Brachman said.

DARPA decided to tackle the project now, he explained, because of the tremendous increase in computing power over the past 15 years -- not just in desktop computers, but increasingly in laptops and even in personal digital assistants, or PDAs. And researchers have made great strides in developing artificial intelligence -- computer software capable of learning, of interpreting language, of anticipating human needs.

The Carnegie Mellon team includes Jaime Carbonell, director of the Language Technologies Institute, and Scott Fahlman, principal research computer scientist. In total, about 25 faculty members, 25 graduate students and another 12 newly hired researchers will work on the project.

In most cases, they will take commercially available software, such as e-mail programs, and add capabilities to it. "We've all sort of pledged to using the technology we produce," Siewiorek said. That means that as they develop the new software, they will try it out, and compare the efficiency of team members working with a software assistant and those working with human assistants.

In addition to Carnegie Mellon, DARPA has contracted with SRI International to develop PAL software. SRI, of Menlo Park, Calif., is mounting a larger program, featuring 20 different subcontractors, including CMU, that will develop components of a system that SRI will then integrate.

Both contracts are for five years. CMU's program, known as Reflective Agents with Distributed Adaptive Reasoning, or RADAR, has received an initial payment of $7 million. SRI's Cognitive Agent that Learns and Observes, or CALO, has received $22 million. Jan Walker, DARPA spokeswoman, said the payments will be reviewed annually and adjusted as needed.

Although it's a new program, PAL already has received brickbats from New York Times columnist William Safire, who last month suggested that some of the capabilities DARPA is talking about could impinge on the user's privacy.

Brachman countered that PAL isn't intended to snoop on users, but to learn enough of their preferences and circumstances so that it can be more helpful to them.

In a sense, users will be able to establish a degree of trust with these pieces of software, just as they do with human assistants or secretaries, Siewiorek said. A computer program that sets a person's calendar, for instance, would need to know work habits and preferences and would need to know what details it was allowed to share with others -- such as whether the user likes to work at home on some afternoons or doesn't wish to be disturbed.

The software itself will have to learn enough of the nuances of human interaction that it will know, for instance, when the user can be interrupted.

"Otherwise," Siewiorek added, "the agent could become obnoxious and no one would want to use it."

Byron Spice can be reached at bspice@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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