The iPhone 4S’ Talking Assistant Is a Military Veteran
- By Spencer Ackerman
- October 5, 2011
Siri, before you became the premiere feature of the new iPhone 4S, where did you come from?
Spencer, I started out as a gleam in the eye of Darpa, the Pentagon’s far-out research agency, as your WIRED colleague Steven Levy tweeted. Darpa thought my artificial-intelligence algorithms for data collection and organization could help the military plan better. Would you like me to find you some references for that?
I would, Siri, thank you.
As it turns out, Siri — the voice-activated data assistant available on Apple’s iPhone upgrade — is a veteran. Nearly ten years ago, Darpa funded a project known as PAL, for Personalized Assistant that Learns. It was an adaptive AI program for both data retrieval and data synthesis. (So not entirely like search, but not dissimilar, either.) If you told PAL what information you needed, and it observed what you did with that information, it would figure out a more efficient path to acquiring and sorting relevant information the next time around.
The project started out with a California company called SRI International. With a five-year, multimillion dollar grant from Darpa under the PAL program, SRI developed a system called CALO, for Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes. (Check out this handy chart of its architecture.) ”The goal of the project is to create cognitive software systems,” it explained, “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.”
Put more simply, “The idea is to develop a system that will adapt to the user, instead of the other way around,” a PAL project partner told a fresh-faced Noah Shachtman way back in 2003. Technophobic New York Times columnist William Safire sputtered that Darpa was ushering in “a world light-years beyond the Matrix,” with dire implications for the person “that PAL’s user is looking at, listening to, sniffing or conspiring with to blow up the world?”
As Darpa tried to show in the corny instructional video above, PAL didn’t work the way Safire thought it did. In the video’s hypothetical scenario, the military is in the middle of a humanitarian aid mission when a terrorist group fires a rocket propelled grenade at a cargo plane. PAL — then quaintly hosted on a desktop — anticipates an officer’s question. “These-are-the-additional-security-forces-in-theater-that-are-available,” a Vocodered voice from a computer tells the officer, like it was the Enterprise answering Captain Kirk, as icons pop up on a screen to illustrate the point.
An Air Force major, new to the fictional task force, gets up to speed on the aid mission by asking PAL for displays of the command plan. “These are my priorities,” he tells it, tapping the screen with his finger. (Darpa seems to have anticipated that by the time PAL was ready, everyone would have a touchscreen desktop monitor.) And just like that, the major has planned his day, telling PAL… what briefings he plans to attend. “Here-are-the-materials-you-need-for-the-meeting,” PAL replied, as it collated them into a folder.
Perhaps PAL was geared to be more like a PDA than the Enterprise’s computer. (No bureaucratic headquarters task is too complicated for a super-algorithm!) Then again, once PAL is networked with other officers’ PALs, it becomes easy to spot the erratic behavior of a fictional ship, alerting the task force to a potential terrorist threat.
By 2008 — with the PAL project not bearing fruit — SRI didn’t want to miss out on the commercial opportunities of iPhone apps. So it spun off a company called Siri Incorporated to develop what became the first iteration of the Siri app — a so-called “do engine” that weaved user preferences with existing web functions to, say, let you know what time the nearest Iron Man showing started. (It wasn’t voice-activated.) Apple thought the Siri’s tech showed promise, so it paid a rumored $150 to $200 million for the company. On Tuesday, CEO Tim Cook finally explained what Apple had in mind.
In other words, you probably won’t be using Siri to track any terrorists on your iPhone 4S. Chances are you’ll ask Siri to find you a nearby restaurant with an available table; a phone number from the depths of your email inbox; or tell you how long it’ll take you to get from the office to the airport in traffic. In fact, according to an SRI veteran, Siri is way more powerful than what Darpa and SRI had in mind. “It’s not just connected to various Web services, but also to your calendar and contacts and music and everything on the phone,” Norman Minarsky of SRI told Technology Review on Tuesday.
But what if you’re in the military, and you want to take Siri back to its PAL roots? Best of luck to you. Obviously, there’s no PAL in usage. Five years after the iPhone launched the smartphone revolution, the military is barely catching up. Only the Army is seriously considering requiring its soldiers to carry smartphones loaded with militarily relevant apps. (The Marines, to a lesser degree, are starting to as well.)
But it still doesn’t know how to secure the classified data that the phones will need to host. The Army is also schizophrenic about scotching its now-obsolete plans for networking soldiers together through wearable computers or incorporating smartphones into them. And budget crunches threaten to smother the Army’s entire smartphone experiment in the cradle. (Check Danger Room on Thursday for an update on Army smartphones in the age of defense austerity.)
So Siri, what should a soldier who wants to take advantage of you do?
She should probably consider getting an iPhone 4S. Would you like Metro directions to the Apple Store in the Pentagon City Mall?
No, I think I’m good. But how exactly could your functionality, hosted on a commercial iPhone 4S, be used to help the military directly?
Despite the early funding from Darpa to develop me, I’m not sure the Army has figured that question out.
Thank you, Siri, I suspected that was the answer.