Global brain project Viv developed with Chicago's tech future on mind

 Dag Kittlaus

Dag Kittlaus, who helped create Apple's Siri, has created a more-advanced mode of artificial intelligence called Viv. (Technori)

So now we know what the Next Big Thing that Dag Kittlaus, the Chicago-area visionary who helped give the world Siri, has been working on for close to two years.

It's Viv, an artificial intelligence system that has the potential to become the indispensable electronic personal assistant that Apple's Siri has never quite managed to be.

"The world's going to be reading hundreds of articles about this in the next week," Kittlaus told the Tribune. "What I want you to know is, Chicago was heavily involved in this project — maybe not in the tech, but in the design, the branding and the creative aspects of it."

Viv promises more than to simply allow users to speak and interact with all manner of products, services and apps in the way Siri allows users to talk to their iPhones and iPads, though that is hardly simple at all.

If all goes as planned, according to a Wired story Tuesday that announced Viv to the world, everyone and everything that interacts with Viv will feed — and benefit from — the growing capabilities of its global brain, which will be capable of writing its own software to solve increasingly complex requests.

It's pie-in-the-sky stuff, but the track record of Kittlaus and the elite technology team he's working with in California to make it happen demands that it not be dismissed out of hand.

The idea is that, through ever-building prevalence, utility and personalization, Viv might be able to insinuate itself into almost every aspect of its users' lives to a degree unrealized even by companies such as Google and Apple. It seeks not only to fulfill needs and solve problems, but anticipate them all in a way that's consistent with users' spoken and unspoken preferences.

For the expertise needed to create something that technologically ambitious and advanced, which he says is still a way from being truly operative, it's still necessary to draw heavily on the resources of Silicon Valley, long the reservoir for a steady flow of engineers from Stanford University and other top schools.

But Kittlaus, who calls suburban Chicago his home, hopes this won't always be the case. And toward that goal of making this city more of a magnet for top talent, he is a big supporter of Chicago-based UI Labs, an effort affiliated with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that seeks to turn academic research into the kind of lucrative ventures that create jobs.

If Viv can improve itself and its capabilities from everything it touches, perhaps Chicago's supporting role in Viv will help midwife its nascent tech scene.

"This project reflects the reality of the Chicago tech scene as it relates to big, hard technology problems," Kittlaus said. "I have these ideas, and there are plenty of people here who can help me turn those ideas into concepts, but when it comes time to actually build this thing, I don't see that pool yet.

"It's important," he said, "that Chicago become a tech center in and of itself and not just an idea place."

Viv, which rhymes with give, gets its name from the Latin root for life.

"It enlivens inanimate objects and services," Kittlaus said, going into Viv sales mode. "It brings them to life. … Imagine this thing as a service in the sky that anyone can teach, anyone can add to or plug into. That's the difference. It's open. It's not a closed thing where only Apple engineers can decide what's going to go into Siri. Anybody can."

Viv's V symbol with a horizontal bar over it is meant to denote something that you can talk to that will know you, according to Kittlaus, who got design and branding help on it from Wicker Park studio Someoddpilot.

Chris Eichenseer, of Someoddpilot, which has worked with Pitchfork, Second City and Chicago Public Media, recalls that Kittlaus reached out on the secret project about a year ago with the name and a general idea of what he wanted from the icon he hopes someday will be as ubiquitous as those for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

"Dag wanted to get this done ahead of time because, as secretive as this project was going to be, he knew word could get out at any point and it would be smart to craft out what it looked like and what the name was so that when that day came, things could be lined up," said Eichenseer, who put together a small team to work on it. "He told us we were the seventh, eighth and ninth people in the world to know what they were doing."

The V can be read as both open to what's out in the world and as a funnel back. Kittlaus referred to the floating bar as a halo that travels with its users. When Viv is spelled out in the selected typeface, it almost resembles an open road.

"We did 20 or 30 different iterations of what this could look like," Eichenseer said. "In the end, we chose something more stationary and visionary. Looking at the V, it shines outward and has that trajectory upward and it just fit with everything else that's going on."

For many of the Chicagoans enlisted to help, there was an almost Manhattan Project-level secrecy in that, according to Kittlaus, they didn't know exactly what he planned to do with the information being gleaned.

Through Chicago entrepreneurial hub 1871 and local venture capitalist Stuart Larkins, Kittlaus was introduced to Matt Maloney and Steve Sanger of GrubHub, the online food-ordering company, and Justin Massa of Food Genius, which specializes in food service industry data and insights. Each local firm allowed Viv Labs access to its application programming interface, enabling Kittlaus' team to run its early tests.

Kittlaus likes to look to a five-year horizon and anticipate what technology will be able to do and what will be asked of it. As the California-based Viv team of top minds coalesced — Kittlaus is the nonengineer in the group — its vision for Viv took hold.

As it stands, there's a business plan, a belief that Viv's usefulness will erode privacy concerns, confidence that what they're building will do what they need it to do and thinking that any other rival artificial intelligence effort in Silicon Valley lags behind theirs.

Neither they nor Viv will pretend to know the future. It's their effort to carve out a niche in the future they anticipate that's important. Chicago would be wise to do the same.

"Chicago can stick with what it knows, but even if it wants to do that, think four generations ahead. If you want to be a manufacturing company, great, or in retail, fine, but be cutting edge," Kittlaus said. "Don't just do the brick-and-mortar stuff a little better. Brick and mortar might disappear in the time frame we're talking about."

philrosenthal@tribune.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

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