Amazon, Founders’ Co-op Fund AI2 Natural Language Spinout KITT.AI

Add KITT.AI to the growing cluster of startups and established technology companies pushing the boundaries of machine intelligence in Seattle.

A spinout of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), KITT.AI received an investment from Founders’ Co-op and the $100 million Amazon Alexa Fund, which points to the technology KITT.AI is working on: natural language understanding. The amount of the financing was not disclosed.

Xuchen Yao and his co-founders, Guoguo Chen and Kenji Sagae, have spent their careers focused on this “moonshot” problem.

“We all thought that making computers understand human language was fascinating,” Yao says via e-mail. “It seems trivial and easy because children do it without obvious effort. But the problem is actually way harder than sending people to the moon (and taking them back).”

Yao

Yao

It’s worth taking a moment to distinguish natural language understanding from automatic speech recognition, a technology that many industry heavyweights—Nuance, SRI, Microsoft, Google, Apple, IBM, Amazon—have refined over the last decade. I dictated interview questions for Yao into my iPhone while sitting on the deck of an indoor swimming pool filled with kids taking lessons; it was remarkably accurate, even in such a noisy, echoing environment.

Speech recognition “is so common that it has become an infrastructure for (the language understanding part of) AI,” Yao says.

Natural language understanding (NLU) is the much more difficult task of deriving meaning from speech or text—a capability that would move computers closer to

Chen

Chen

what we think of as intelligence.

“Quite simply, if we can solve the full NLU problem, we’ve solved AI,” Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Paul Allen-founded AI2, writes in an e-mail. “Current systems like Siri and Echo just use templates to provide ‘canned’ responses, so we have a long ways to go.”

The big companies that are making progress on natural language understanding today are doing so in support of their own platforms: Microsoft Cortana, Siri from Apple, Google Now, and Alexa, the voice and intelligence inside Amazon Echo. (Amazon has been notably open with its voice technology, giving developers free access to its Alexa Voice Service and Alexa Skills Kit, which allow them to build new, custom capabilities using voice controls and connected devices. The company is backing the best of them through its investment fund, announced last summer.)

Sagae

Sagae

“There’s still quite some distance to NLU becoming an infrastructure that’s commonly available to every company,” Yao says.

Therein lies KITT.AI’s business: “We are a [software as a service] company that’ll provide Natural/Spoken Language Understanding as a service,” Yao says. “We will build an open platform and community for developers.”

Individual developers will have free access to the technology. The company will charge businesses, he says.

Founders’ Co-op managing director Chris DeVore fleshed out KITT.AI’s plans a bit more in a blog post announcing the funding last week: “KITT will begin releasing its first developer-facing products this Spring, including a customizable hotword detection engine”—co-founder Chen helped create the “OK Google” hotword technology—“and a conversational understanding service, with a longer-term vision of becoming the ‘Twilio/Slack for NLU’.”

KITT.AI says its hotword detection technology is lightweight, with a runtime of less than 3 megabytes, and does not require an Internet connection. Other applications of the company’s technology include answering natural language questions from Web text or knowledge bases and parsing language into executable code.

The company’s Semantic Lighting API (application programming interface) is an example of the latter. It allows nuanced control of LED smart lights with natural language commands. For example, in response to the command, “Give me something romantic,” the lights turn red.

The API works with any device that can accept voice or text input, such as Echo or a chat platform such as Slack. KITT.AI’s cloud-based software handles the language understanding and translation into commands sent to colored LED smart lights (Philips Hue is the first product supported).

“We picked smart lighting as the entry point to home automation, as smart lighting is playful and passes the toothbrush test (something people use every day),” Yao says. “However, no one has been able to do much about these smart lights except for common simple tasks.”

Say, “Go Seattle Seahawks!” and the lights display the colors of the company’s home team (perhaps a bit more brightly after Sunday’s 10-9 playoffs win over Minnesota).

Yao and his KITT.AI co-founders wound up in Seattle in large part because of AI2.

The institute’s startup incubator is “very small and highly selective,” Etzioni notes. KITT.AI is the first company to graduate.

“It’s goal has been to attract phenomenal talent to Seattle and to AI2,” he says, noting the recruitment of Yao and Aria Haghighi, another AI2 entrepreneur in residence who is now CTO and chief architect at Pioneer Square Labs. “Another goal is to ‘spin out’ technologies from AI2 (when they are ready) and I’m confident we will see some of that in the coming years as well.”

Oren Etzioni

Etzioni

The AI2, founded in 2013, joins an enviable array of AI powerhouses in the Seattle area, starting with the University of Washington’s computer science department, which has been investing in AI research for years and has lately added to its expertise with hires including Yejin Choi and Noah Smith in natural language processing, and Sham Kakade and Sergey Levine in machine learning.

Yao also notes the importance of cloud computing expertise at Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure based locally; a strong community of experts in machine learning, big data, and natural language processing at Microsoft, Amazon, and Google; and what he describes as a “super friendly investing environment.”

But talent is paramount, particularly when you’re trying something that might be tougher than a moon landing.

“Between UW CSE, AI2, Amazon, Microsoft and Google, Seattle has quietly developed a very deep pool of engineering talent in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and it’s exciting to see entrepreneurial offshoots of that ecosystem begin to flower,” DeVore says.

The local presence of Amazon and the Alexa Fund is also significant, he adds.

“Amazon is making a massive, strategic commitment to voice as an input and control interface, and it’s gratifying to be working with their investment team on an opportunity right here in their own backyard,” DeVore says.

KITT.AI joins a group of startup companies working on AI and related technologies in the Seattle area, including Dato, Spare5, Algorithmia, and Textio.

“There could not be a better time to innovate in AI,” Etzioni says. And there are few better places to do so. “We are not Silicon Valley, but I think we are firmly number two in the world.”

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