Trapit Adapts AI-Driven Personal Search for Paying Customers

When the global artificial intelligence of the 22nd century—let’s call it, oh, Skynet—is writing its autobiography, it will find that some of its grandparents were born in Silicon Valley in the years 2003-2008. That’s when the defense-backed CALO Project was underway at the contract research outfit SRI International in Menlo Park, CA.

Short for Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes, CALO was a $200 million effort to build programs that could reason adaptively and filter information for users based on their needs or their context. The project’s first commercial spinoff was Siri, the virtual personal assistant that’s now part of the operating system in every late-model iPhone and iPad. The second was Trapit, a personalized discovery engine for Web content. Then came Lola, Kuato, and Desti in the areas of banking, games, and travel, respectively—with more spinoffs sure to follow.

Today I want to take another look at Trapit, which has evolved quite a bit since my first profile of the startup back in October 2011. Trapit’s software doesn’t talk back to you, the way Siri does, but it’s arguably much smarter when it comes to finding information that fits your specific interests. If Siri goes down in history as Skynet’s sassy, slightly airheaded grandma, Trapit will be its nerdy, intellectually omnivorous uncle. Its specialty is sorting through disparate data such as news articles on the Web and finding material containing common threads.

A Trapit trap on the World Series

A Trapit trap on the World Series

When the Palo Alto-based startup came out of stealth mode last year, its personalized search service was available only in the form of a desktop-centric website. When the user supplied a topic—say, fly fishing, or vampire novels, or hydraulic fracking—the software would create a “trap” consisting of news articles and blog posts on that topic drawn from 120,000 hand-picked sources. The software was adaptive, observing the user and employing feedback such as thumbs-up or thumbs-down ratings, the time spent reading each article, social media sharing behavior, and other feedback to discern a person’s specific interests with each topic. It would then narrow down the selection of articles it showed in the future.

It was impressive stuff, offering a clear advance over Google Alerts and other persistent, personalized search tools. But I said at the time that Trapit probably wouldn’t become part of my own daily browsing routine until it became more tablet-friendly. The company obliged this July by coming out with a native iPad app—and now the tablet version, which is available free in the iTunes app store, accounts for 84 percent of the time users spend with Trapit.

So it’s pretty clear that building the app was a smart move, at least as a way to pull in more users who could help the startup fine-tune its technology. “What we use the [Web and mobile] apps for is to really hone the algorithms than for anything else,” says Henry “Hank” Nothhaft Jr., the company’s co-founder and chief product officer. “We needed to get people creating and personalizing traps at scale.” Today Trapit has hundreds of thousands of users, Nothhaft says.

But now comes the hard part: locating a few paying customers. Siri, the startup, never had to solve that problem, owing to its rapid acquisition by Apple (which promptly killed the company’s free, standalone iPhone app). But Nothhaft and CEO Gary Griffiths are proceeding as if they’ll need to earn some actual revenue. And it turns out Trapit’s first job will be as a sort of librarian- or curator-for-hire for a big media company, the Malaysian media conglomerate Astro.

Roughly speaking, Astro is the DirecTV, Comcast, and Netflix of Malaysia, with about 3 million pay-TV subscribers, or more than half of the total market in the booming southeast Asian country. The company delivers thousands of local, regional, and international shows to viewers across hundreds of channels. As anyone who’s tried to sort through their cable provider’s electronic programming guide knows, it’s hard to figure out what to watch when there’s so much available. Astro announced in September that it plans to … 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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