SRI International has never been short on ambition. In its more than 50 years of existence, the Menlo Park, California, think tank—part of Stanford University until 1970—has contributed to such developments as the computer mouse, radar, email, and video technology that led to HDTV. But after SRI had what was arguably its biggest commercial success with Apple's 2010 acquisition of the technology that would become Siri, many of its researchers realized that startup-esque successes can be just as important as long-term innovation. Explains Rich Mahoney, SRI's director of robotics, "The goal is to have our great stories not be a decade apart." Here are four current projects SRI hopes will keep it ahead of schedule.
Helping users focus on focus
Comprised of a touch screen, HD displays, cameras, and sensors, this system monitors user behavior to foster productivity. By tracking your eyes as you work, Bright can assess the time you spend looking at specific files or emails. In time, it will be able to gauge their importance and act as a prioritizing filter. Its eye-tracking tech can already detect when you're looking at an image but not actually seeing it, making it valuable for, say, air-traffic controllers.
Timetable: Five years for full system.
Cancer-catching laser tech
A laser and fiber-optic system originally invented by Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, FAST (fiber-optic array scanning technology) can quickly scan your bloodstream for circulating tumor cells. The system—basically a biopsy, but from drops of blood—is presently tuned for breast and lung cancer, and could obviate debilitating, one-size-fits-all chemotherapy treatments by letting doctors prescribe targeted therapies. If all goes as planned, trials will begin by the end of 2012.
Timetable: At least three years.
If Siri balanced your budget
Spanish bank BBVA-Compass worked with SRI for five years to create a Siri-like virtual assistant that carries out banking tasks. The web app can handle chores such as moving cash between accounts or setting up bill payments. Lola will be test-driven until early 2013 by bank staffers and their families before its release to BBVA customers. (From there, the software may be licensed to other banks.) Minor hurdle for a Spanish bank's utility: Lola speaks only English right now.
Timetable: Within a year.
Providing a helping hand
SRI wants to mainstream the use of consumer robots with low-cost (under $1,000) robotic hands that can wield human tools. A robot holding a flashlight or pushing a button may not seem sexy, but some of the value of bots comes from their ability to operate in hazardous environments. A commercial venture called Redwood Robotics is licensing some of the technology from SRI and plans to market robots, albeit in a stripped-down manner: It'll hawk the hardware; it's up to consumers to program as needed.
Timetable: Within five years.
Illustrations by Mikey Burton
A version of this article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.