The popularity of Babak Pahlavan‘s new predictive, artificial intelligence app seems to have caught him completely by surprise; so much so that he had to change its (or maybe in this case, his) name from Seymour to Alfred.
At least, that’s what they’re telling us. Apparently, when Clever Sense — the outfit behind Alfred, of which Pahlavan is CEO — put the app out on the App Store as a precursor to an actual launch, the name “Alfred” wasn’t intended to be permanent; in fact, it was to be renamed “Seymour” upon launch, scheduled for today. Somehow, the app took off like wildfire though, with the company claiming 20,000 downloads since Friday. So they just went with it, launched it yesterday, and the name Alfred stuck.
Why the sudden surge of popularity? Because this app is a sophisticated showcase of artificial intelligence, and if early reports are true, works pretty well.
Alfred’s function is to try to predict what you want to eat or drink; but the way it goes about trying to figure that out is fairly complex. Instead of relying solely on the recorded tastes of a large user-base to compare your tastes to for recommendations and then adjusting based on your user ratings (like the Netflix model), Alfred also learns and makes suggestions based on a whole host of contextual cues (time of day, weekday, type of outing), in addition to employing the older model of seeing what everybody else similar to you likes and adjusting based on your ratings.
Clever Sense calls the technology its “Serendipity Engine” and developed it over two years, from 2008 to 2010. But that’s only half the story. The outfit also developed the “Extraction Engine,” a system for scouring the web, with its own web crawlers, that further aids in figuring out what you want by looking at check-ins, Yelp ratings and other relevant data. The upshot of all this is that Alfred should be able to tell steer you in exactly the right direction if you’re looking for, say, a good place for FroYo that you’d love to hang out at on Sunday afternoon in London — even if you’re from Tennessee.
For his next trick, Alfred will deliver special deals (ala Groupon, Living Social and the ilk) tailored specifically for you — but that’s down the road a ways. In the meantime, enjoy your FroYo.