From the Lab that Brought You Siri, It’s Trapit—A Personalized Discovery Engine

There are two kinds of people: Those who already own an iPhone 4S, and those who don’t but have seen Apple’s Siri ads and wish they did. Siri, of course, is the voice-operated personal assistant that can read your text messages, schedule appointments, check on the weather, make waffles, and babysit your toddler (just kidding about those last two). It’s the coolest feature of the latest Apple smartphone, which went on sale last week. Virtually overnight, it has brought state-of-the-art artificial intelligence technology into the consumer mainstream.

Well, it turns out that there’s more where that came from. The same Silicon Valley defense project that gave birth to Siri—called CALO, for Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes (more on this below)—has another, lesser-known spinoff, a Palo Alto news personalization startup called Trapit. The company’s web-based service uses AI to organize the welter of new content that appears online every day into tailored collections called “traps.” And while the technology is still a bit raw, there’s a chance that it could have the same kind of impact in the world of Web search and online news that Siri is beginning to have on mobile interfaces.

I’ve been playing with TrapIt for about three months now. It hasn’t become a part of my daily news-browsing routine, but I can definitely see that happening if the startup continues to refine the interface, improve its search algorithms, and make the site more tablet-friendly. (Trapit took the lid off its service in June, but it remains in closed beta testing, which means you have to request an invitation to get an account. The wait was short when I registered. The company says it’s going to open the beta version of its service to the whole public later this fall.)

The first thing to try when you go to Trapit is either to browse one of the existing, featured traps—which are often related to breaking news, such as yesterday’s killing of Muammar Qaddafi—or start one of your own by entering a phrase or keyword into the “Discover” bar. After a short wait, you’ll be presented with recent news stories and blog posts on your topic, culled from across the Web.

At first the selection may seem pretty random. The neat part is that as you peruse various articles, which pop up in lightbox-style windows, Trapit observes what you’re reading, how long you spend with each article, and what you’re sharing with others. It uses these cues and others to beef up its profile of your personal tastes, so that over time it’s able to surface more articles that fit your interests and fewer that don’t.

You can also train Trapit manually by clicking on the thumbs-up or thumbs-down buttons—and the more you do this, the faster the software will learn your preferences. As you create traps on new topics and train your existing traps, you can end up with a whole gallery of mini-magazines, exclusively tuned to the mix of subjects that you, and you alone, are passionate about. It’s a pretty unique service—the closest comparison I can think of is Google Alerts, which are like standing search queries with the results e-mailed to your inbox every day. But Trapit is more like regular Web surfing. It’s just that you’re surfing the Web you want.

Trapit’s AI-driven approach goes completely counter to the dominant trend in news curation today, which emphasizes the power of social networking and collaborative filtering. News aggregation apps like Flipboard, Pulse, AOL’s Editions, CNN’s Zite, Yahoo’s Livestand, and Google’s forthcoming Propeller platform may seem to provide personalized news feeds, but … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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17 responses to “From the Lab that Brought You Siri, It’s Trapit—A Personalized Discovery Engine”

  1. Wade…I love this line you wrote: “But what if your friends don’t share all of your interests, or aren’t very good at ferreting out the kinds of obscure news tidbits that might make your day, or are just dull people?” As you observe, news discovery is still not much advanced from the state of Amazon recommendations. A good start but blunt.

    Trapit sounds interesting. IF they can make their UX as fluid as Pinterest, and combine the easy teachability of Pandora, I’ll be a user. I’m not as patient as you to hack through new services. It’s great you do it for the rest of us!

  2. I am wondering why is this old technology so interesting is it because Apple is just catching up? It sounds to me that the only reason why everyone thinks Apple is so revolutionary is because the media disregards are pays little attention until Apple does it. I have been using Android with voice on my phone for quite sometime with no problems and it does all of that and more since it now can control other devices so yes it can turn on the waffle maker.

  3. Wade,
    Nice piece on – i have been following these guys since private beta as much of what they are doing mimics what we launched on back in 2009 like surfacing trending stories and topics from tens of thousands of sources, allowing users to follow the topics they love, bringing new stories to them. At Evri, we made a conscious decision to go Tablet and Mobile b/c, as you point out, that’s where folks really lean back and discover, browse news. You should check out Evri for iPad, I would welcome your thoughts.
    -Will Hunsinger
    CEO, Evri

  4. Alan Bourke says:

    “it has brought state-of-the-art artificial intelligence technology”


  5. [ SOS ] Complaint about Human Rights Violations by IBM China on Centennial

    Please Google:

    Tragedy of Labor Rights Repression in IBM China
    How Much IBM Can Get Away with is the Responsibility of the Media
    IBM detained mother of ex-employee on the day of centennials

  6. Jules PieriJules Pieri says:

    @David…I take your point but that is the idea behind building a trusted brand like Apple. You get huge unfair advantages for doing that hard spadework like Apple did…credit for translating technologies that you did not invent.

    I will say I had four Droids, I used the speech recognition feature, and was pretty fluent on the phone. But I recently switched to the iPhone because the UX of the Droid was just not as good and I was sick of bending my mind around a Droid developer’s biases rather than having a simple and intuitive approach. With Trapit I see the potential for the same “win”. I am not yet a user so I have to really try it to be definitive, but my initial impression is that they might be serving up this customized news service with a UX that complements the technology, rather than follows it. That is exactly what Apple did repeatedly.

  7. Samir says:

    I would basically call it a mixture of Stumble Upon + Twitter plus a bit of AI
    The UI needs drastic improvements to make it more user friendly
    but great tool indeed