Halo Aura

Automated User-Centered Reasoning and Acquisition System

Project Halo is a staged, long-range research effort by Vulcan Inc. towards the development of a "Digital Aristotle" - a reasoning system capable of answering novel questions and solving advanced problems in a broad range of scientific disciplines and related human affairs. The project focuses on creating two primary functions: a tutor capable of instructing and assessing students in those subjects, and a research assistant with broad, interdisciplinary skills to help scientists and others in their work.

In 2004, Vulcan began the development of Automated User-Centered Reasoning and Acquisition System (AURA), by SRI International (SRI). SRI has developed AURA to allow subject matter experts (SMEs), for example, biologists, physicists, and chemists, and scientific educators to formulate knowledge and questions to query that knowledge, with an ever-decreasing reliance on knowledge engineers.

The innovative aspects of this project are as follows:

  • Module-centered knowledge acquisition: AURA features a novel document-centric knowledge acquisition interface. This interface is an application of the concept of graphical assembly of knowledge from components and is based on the hypothesis that circumscribed knowledge fragments, in particular paragraphs from a textbook, can indeed be formulated by subject matter experts in a modular fashion using self-contained and well-packaged components. If successful, this will substantially reduce the cost of knowledge formation as compared to what we saw during Halo Pilot Phase. The success of this hypothesis will also set the stage for the large scale construction of a knowledge base that is central for realizing the dream of Digital Aristotle.
  • Natural Query Communication: Human domain knowledge is naturally expressed in a variety of forms, e.g., graphs, text, and diagrams, in sharp contrast to the cryptic and rigid input formalisms which a machine typically requires. To begin to bridge this gap, AURA features an interface for question-asking questions based on controlled English.
  • Usability design by a marriage of technology, behavioral science, and fine arts design techniques: AURA incorporates the informed intuition of professional designers steeped in the knowledge of both SMEs and the KR developers on the team. AURA uses computational models of the skilled user to design efficient interfaces for the SMEs who are expected to encode vast amounts of knowledge, even before system prototypes are available for user testing.

The current focus of AURA is to capture a significant fraction of a Biology textbook and embed the resulting knowledge base into an Intelligent Electronic Textbook reader that could be used by teachers and students. The following is a presentation given at the recent Cyberlearning Research Summit 2012 conference, on the results of this focus: "Inquire: A Textbook with Knowledge Representation and Reasoning"

The AURA system is licensed and distributed by Vulcan Inc. For more information on obtaining a license and a copy of the software, please contact Mark Greaves (

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