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KImera's Nigel is born
Kimera Systems says its AI assistant, called “Nigel,” takes advantage of artificial general intelligence or AGI. But that’s a controversial claim. (Credit: Kimera Systems)

There’s a new bot in town: Nigel, a software assistant that its creators at Oregon-based Kimera Systems say can learn from the behavior of its users.

Nigel was “born” on Friday, when Kimera co-founder and CEO Mounir Shita fired up the program for a private beta test at a birthday party in downtown Portland. It’s named after one of the software’s principal architects, Nigel Deighton, who passed away in 2013.

Kimera says a public beta version of the program will soon be made available.

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is the big thing in bots nowadays. Most smartphone users already can carry on conversations with voice-enabled AI bots such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and the Google assistant on Android devices.

Looking ahead, Microsoft is putting big bets on “Conversation as a Platform.” Just last week it rolled out a troop of Skype bots for planning trips or buying tickets. One of the pioneers in the bot market, Next IT, recently raised $20 million to work on a next-generation architecture for AI assistants.

AI programs are generally designed to focus on specialized tasks. For instance, Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo can beat human masters at the game of Go, but it can’t order a pizza. Siri may be able to order the pizza, but it’s not great at Go.

In contrast, Kimera says Nigel is designed to learn using a human-type strategy. It observes the behavior of people using connected devices, then tries to work out the proper context for the task in question. Nigel can draw upon different types of data from personal clouds to address users’ needs.

For example, during an early internal test, the Nigel technology was set up on all the phones used by attendees who were scheduled to attend a meeting. One of the attendees was absent, however, and sent a text to a colleague: “Is everyone there?”

The colleague didn’t see the message immediately, but Nigel did. It understood the context of the question, checked the location and calendar data for the other attendees, and then sent back a response: “Everyone is here except you.”

Shita said that episode demonstrated the difference between Nigel and Siri.

“You cannot ask your smartphone ‘Is everyone there?’ and expect it to give you an answer relevant to your situation at that moment,” Shita said in a news release. “Because Nigel will understand this question, it can give you a meaningful answer.”

Kimera says Nigel takes advantage of a new approach that’s based on a type of AI called artificial general intelligence, or AGI. That capability, also known as “strong AI,” makes it possible for an agent to deal with uncertainty and take independent action in unpredictable, real-world circumstances.

Most experts say we’re years if not decades away from developing devices with human-level artificial general intelligence. For that reason, Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, was skeptical of Kimera’s claims about Nigel’s AGI abilities.

“What can ‘Nigel’ actually do?” he asked in an email to GeekWire. “How do we evaluate it?”

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