HAL 9000 -- not just in space anymore

Your phone and other devices are quickly evolving into intelligent robot assistants you can talk to

A few years ago, the Pentagon launched a program to create a fully functional HAL 9000 -- the intelligent software robot depicted in the 1968 sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If you'll recall, the movie HAL carried on conversations in natural language, monitored the spaceship and communications from Earth and notified the crew about important events just at the right time. HAL could also make decisions, prioritize and learn.

The Pentagon's project was called CALO, for Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes. The five-year program enlisted more than 300 researchers from at least two-dozen universities. This massive effort was organized by a brilliant guy named Adam Cheyer, who served as the project's chief architect.

Guess what HAL's chief architect does now? Cheyer works at Apple as director of engineering for the iPhone. Apple "acquired" Cheyer when it bought the company he co-founded, Siri Inc.

And Cheyer is still building HAL. The only difference is that HAL will live in your iPhone.

If you've got an iPhone, you can download Siri's "virtual personal assistant" app free of charge. To use it, you just talk to the app. Say you want to make a restaurant reservation. Siri will intelligently suggest a few based on your location and preferences. When you pick one, Siri will make the reservation for you.

Apple bought Siri and hired the world's leading expert in HAL-like artificial intelligence robots to lead its iPhone engineering team for only one reason: Apple knows phones will evolve into virtual personal assistants.

Apple's advantage is that it's good at integrating functionality and making it seamless and elegant. The company is also disciplined about rolling out only the aspects of new technology that are ready for prime time. So we can expect HAL to be integrated into our phones one feature at a time.

But Apple isn't the only company with an advantage.

Google's version of HAL

The movie HAL performed its amazing feats in part because it had access to a lot of data. He was able to monitor all computer and spaceship systems.

HAL also knew everything about the people he interacted with. You know, like Google does.

If you're a heavy user of Google services, Google knows who you are, where you are, what you're interested in, who you know and much more.

Google intends to leverage all of that data to transform its search technology into a HAL 9000 style personal assistant that communicates with you through your cell phone.

As I detailed in this space last week, Google will add proactive interruption as a way to make search even faster than instantaneous. Google will give you results before you even know you want to conduct a search.

The Google HAL will constantly monitor your e-mail, your calendar, your social activity, your searches, your whereabouts and other data, run it all through some massively sophisticated algorithm, and then beep your phone and tell you something like this: "It looks like your lunch with Steve conflicts with the parent-teacher conference your wife just invited you to. Would you like me to reschedule the lunch?" You'll say, "sure, go ahead," and Google's HAL will take care of it for you, getting Steve's OK and then changing your restaurant reservation.

Like Apple's HAL, the Google version will learn from your responses, becoming more accurate and relevant the more you use it.

Alarm clock HAL

One myth about innovation is that it comes about as a "eureka" moment of spontaneous creation, producing an idea radically different from anything that came before.

The truth is that the big new ideas are always "in the air" -- many people are working on them because technology evolution brings the industry to the point where these ideas are inevitable. And then it's all about the execution, timing, funding and so on.

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