A Seattle startup gets on the artificial-intelligence train with work in natural language understanding and by helping developers create voice controls used on devices.

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What: Kitt.ai, a Seattle software company specializing in natural language understanding as related to artificial intelligence


Who: Xuchen Yao, co-founder


Ph.D.’s galore: The three co-founders, Yao, Guoguo Chen and Kenji Sagae, all have doctorates in computer-engineering related fields. Yao and Chen studied at Johns Hopkins and Sagae at Carnegie Mellon.


The idea: Yao came up with the idea for the company while at Johns Hopkins. He flew to Seattle to interview at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), and told Allen CEO Oren Etzioni he wanted to start his own company. AI2 agreed to incubate the startup, and Kitt.ai was formed.


Voice-operated tech: Kitt.ai is creating an open platform for developers to create voice and text commands that can then be incorporated into applications. The company specializes in natural language understanding, and makes it easy for developers to create voice controls so the developers don’t have to build it from scratch.


System agnostic: Kitt.ai’s platform will work with any system, such as Amazon’s Alexa or custom-built programs. “We want to build an open-developer community that can support all kinds of dialogue systems for all kinds of platforms out there,” Yao said.


Wake up, AI: Kitt.ai launched its first product last week, a Web-based program called Snowboy, which lets developers create “hotwords” to command systems by voice. Hotwords such as “Hey Siri” or “OK Google” wake up artificial-intelligence machines.


How it works: Individual developers cannot access the big companies’ back-end technology, so Kitt.ai built a system that quickly codes hot words for anyone. A developer could create a command that says “Hey Rosie, dim the lights,” for example. Kitt.ai’s system would produce code that developers can then plug into their device.


Commercial money: Kitt.ai plans to make money mostly from large corporations. The company will charge small companies a small fee, and will license the service to larger commercial firms.


Big backers: Kitt.ai has received funding from AI2, Madrona Venture Group, Founders Co-op and Amazon’s Alexa Fund, named for Amazon’s voice-powered digital assistant. The startup, now with a staff of just the co-founders, is currently incubated within Madrona’s offices. It did not disclose its total funding numbers.

— Rachel Lerman