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Yahoo backs academics in search of smarter Siri

Web giant gives $10m to Carnegie Mellon researchers to develop mobile PA apps

Yahoo backs academics in search of smarter Siri
Yahoo needs to distinguish itself in the Web services arena if it is to regain lost ground in the battle for the Web.

Yahoo Inc has donated $10m to a team of scientists in pursuit of assistant-style mobile apps for smartphones that will improve on Apple's Siri, according to the MIT Technology Review.

The grant was given to a Carnegie Mellon team for a five-year machine-learning project named InMind. Researchers will get access to the technology that delivers a number of Yahoo services, such as mail and news, and will develop fresh apps to extend them. The data stored by Yahoo from these services will be used to help the new apps understand users and their preferences.

The team hopes Carnegie students and staff will volunteer access to their Yahoo accounts, providing a test bed that could number in the thousands.

Ron Brachman, head of Yahoo Labs, argues that Siri lacks contextual understanding of a user's real-time needs, but InMind - conceived jointly by Brachman and Tom Mitchell, head of Carnegie's machine-learning department - could go further. Both Brachman and Mitchell worked on the Pentagon-funded project (CALO) that created Siri, before it was acquired by Apple. Brachman believes it is possible to build a digital assistant that asks follow-up questions and makes suggestions based on new information.

Carnegie Mellon currently runs a number of projects that could feature heavily in building the InMind apps. One such project is NELL, a data-trawling engine that has spent four years collating online document in an attempt to discover patterns in human interests. Another project that may be co-opted for the InMind project is CHORUS, conversation-capable natural language application.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has been struggling to recoup lost ground in the Web world since taking over in July 2012. Her tenure has been punctuated by a series of acquisitions designed to reinvent Yahoo services. Success in the InMind project would go towards differentiating Yahoo in a service-driven market.

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