With a strong push from the Pentagon, computer scientists are trying to create an artificial ‘personal office assistant’ that is smart enough to handle routine tasks for a human boss, military or civilian.

The researchers aim to build an electronic system that understands human language, takes and remembers instructions, learns from its experiences and copes with unexpected situations. It would not make coffee, but it will not grumble or demand a raise.

The automated aide-de-camp is supposed to be able to sort email, schedule meetings, make plane reservations, collect information for reports and carry out other humdrum, time-consuming chores for busy human managers.

Although the duties appear routine work, creating a software programme that can handle them is one of the most difficult challenges in computer science. Artificial-intelligence experts have struggled for years to make machines perform functions that are simple for people but stump electronic devices.

Today’s increasing computing speed and power: however, make things that were impossible five or 10 years ago more practical, researchers said. "Progress has been slow but steady" Eric Mathews, the Associate Director of the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the University of Memphis, says in an e-mail message. The office assistant programme is sponsored by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a Pentagon unit that pioneered such once blue-sky developments as the Internet, stealth aircraft and microelectronic machines.

DARPA Director Anthony Tether told the House Science Committee last month that his agency is moving into the field of "cognitive computing", meaning computer systems that "perceive, reason and learn", not just crunch numbers and manipulate data. The Pentagon project is called PAL, an acronym for "Personalised Assistant that Learns."

"Cognitive systems that learn to adapt to their users could dramatically improve a wide range of military operations," says Ronald Brachman, the director of DARPA’s Information Processing Technology Office. "They could learn and even improve on their own."

The PAL programme aims to "make military decision-making more efficient and more effeetive at all levels, from the individual soldier to the high-level commander, and to reduce risk for humans," Brachman says. The system is supposed to "perform well in specific scenarios that are exactly like those that a human executive assistant would face.

" For work on PAL, DARPA so far has granted $22 million to SRI International, a research or- ganisation in Menlo Park, California, and $7 million to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. More than 20 universities and research laboratories are contributing to the effort, which was launched in 2003.

Researchers at these and other organisations already have pro- duced numerous more or less successful artificial-intelligence programmes that can carry out bits and pieces of DARPA’s vision. There are many language translators, speech recognisers, e-mail sorters, report summarisers, calendar managers and the like in the market. The PAL project is an ambitious attempt to integrate these scattered systems into a whole.

"It forces researchers from different sub-fields to work together on problems we associate with human-level intelligence," says John Laird, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbot: in an email message.

Among other skills, DARPA wants its office assistant to be able to:

Learn by observing a human partner or by being told something directly; be aware of events as they happen; decide what to do and act in real time; remember its experiences and recall them when needed.

"We are making progress in all areas, but the predominant emphasis and progress is in (computer) learning," says Jan Walket: spokeswoman, DARPA. Some computer scientists are sceptical that DARPA, despite its many technological breakthroughs, can make an artificial office assistant helpful in the real world. The goal is "highly unrealistic," says Bram van However, the Director of the Minds and Machines Programme at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

"Trying to get a computer system to perform these kinds of mundane tasks has plagued AI (artificial intelligence) research from the very start," van Heuveln says. "Some say this is just a matter of producing faster and more powerful processors, but I myself think the problem is much deeper Powerfill and reusable cognitive-processing technology is not in the offing anytime soon, certainly not in the next few years."

Laird disagrees: "It is very realistic to expect that software using AI techniques will aid office management in the next few years where there is a real need, not just in the once but also the battlefield."

Inputs from MCT