Yahoo, CMU to Announce Partnership for Work in Intuitive Technology

Imagine Siri with the ability to learn, think and use common sense.


Imagine a mobile phone app that understands what you mean even if it's not what you said, or a search engine that anticipates a question and answers it before you ask.

On Wednesday, Yahoo and Carnegie Mellon University will announce a partnership aimed at advancing such technology, said Randal Bryant, dean of Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science.

“Imagine Siri,” Bryant said, referring to Apple's voice assistant feature. “The idea with this is, go a step further and imagine a Siri that is much more intuit.”

It's called the Holy Grail of computing — developing a machine to think on its own, to learn and to use common sense.

The partnership could position Yahoo to take the lead in developing the next generation of intuitive technology, said Jim Gunderson, president of Denver-based Gamma Two Robotics. The Carnegie Mellon-Yahoo team is strong and the timing is ideal, said Gunderson, who predicted 2014 will be the year of artificial intelligence.

“There's a lot of money at stake,” Gunderson said, mentioning intuitive computer technology could generate hundreds of billions of dollars. “For a company like Yahoo, coming up with a better Siri is a big advantage.”

Yahoo and Carnegie Mellon kept details of the partnership secret before the announcement. A media advisory on Monday said the collaboration would include a “significant financial contribution,” but Yahoo and university officials declined to disclose the amount.

University researchers in the Machine Learning Department and at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute will work with engineers from Yahoo Labs, the revitalized research division of Yahoo, to develop technology that learns as someone uses it. Bryant said the project has been developing for about a year.

The partnership adds to Carnegie Mellon's roster of top tech collaborations. Microsoft, Google, Intel, Oracle and Apple invested in research at the university. The school has renowned artificial intelligence and robotics programs, Gunderson said.

Overshadowed by search engine giant Google, Yahoo, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., has struggled to regain prominence. In 2012, Yahoo brought in former Google executive Marissa Mayer to run the company. She turned Yahoo's focus to personalization and individualization and made a push to hire top-caliber employees, said Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

“Yahoo has to get next to these smart kids,” Russo said of the students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon.

Yahoo spokeswoman Lauren Whitehouse said the company looked to Carnegie Mellon because the university has a stand-alone Machine Learning Department. Research in machine learning, where technology learns and can predict a user's intention, started in the university in the mid-1990s, Bryant said. The department, under the direction of Tom Mitchell, started in 2006.

Yahoo has partnerships with 16 universities, including Stanford, Cornell, University of California Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, Whitehouse said.

The collaboration will reunite Ron Brachman, head of Yahoo Labs, with Carnegie Mellon. Before joining Yahoo, Brachman worked with the university as part of its partnership with the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency. While with DARPA, Brachman pioneered technology that led to Siri.

Brachman will be at Carnegie Mellon to announce the collaboration.

The technology has applications beyond a voice inside someone's mobile phone. Gunderson said Wall Street and investors are interested in technology that can scan recent financial news and better predict the stock market. Yahoo could perfect search capabilities, answering questions we mean to ask even if we do not ask them correctly, Gunderson said.

“It's a tool that just makes all other tools better,” he said.

©2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)