Applying iPhone Innovation to Better Schools and Cleaner Energy

Apple earlier this month announced that a virtual personal assistant called Siri would be the premier feature of the new iPhone 4S.  People will be able to ask Siri to book a table at a nearby restaurant, make an appointment with a friend or colleague or answer a question using the information from multiple search engines and web sites.

Siri is a significant advance in our ability to develop computers that understand and do what we mean. Many experts believe that this technology – which integrates advances in wireless communications, speech recognition, artificial intelligence and smartphones, will transform the way we interact with information technology.

What you may not know is that this technology is a direct outgrowth of a federally-funded research project called the “Personalized Assistant that Learns.”  This project was backed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same agency that supported the early research that led to the Internet, GPS and stealth aircraft. DARPA wanted to build “cognitive” computers for the military that can reason, learn from experience, be told what to do, explain what they are doing, and reflect on their experience.

Although a start-up company, venture capitalists and Apple itself had to make significant investments to commercialize Siri, federally-funded research played a key role in developing the basic technology.  Federal basic research has also contributed to the other components of your smartphone, including the lithium-ion batteries, the hard drive, the memory chips, and the liquid crystal display.

That’s why President Obama believes that the United States must continue to invest in research and innovation if we want to “win the future.”  Investments in research are the rocket fuel for the American economy – creating jobs, new products and services, and new industries.

And it’s why the President has called for replication of the DARPA model to help address other national priorities such as education and energy. ARPA-E is investing in game changing energy technologies that have the potential to dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil and make clean energy the profitable kind of energy. The Administration has also proposed creating an “ARPA for Education,” which would support research on learning technologies that are as effective as a personal tutor and engaging as the best video game.

Tom Kalil is the Deputy Director for Policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Kumar Garg is Senior Advisor to the Deputy Director at OSTP.

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