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Thursday, December 06, 2012, 03:22 am PT (06:22 am ET)

Apple's smart to-do list uses context to create and trigger tasks

An Apple patent filing with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Thursday reveals an intelligent task management system that uses context clues like location, time and natural language processing in the cloud to create and organize "smart" to-do lists.

Smart To-do

Contextualized to-do tasks. | Source: USPTO


The invention looks to solve the problem of information overload in an age where people have to juggle work meetings, family and a social life, all of which could take up an entire day's schedule. Whereas Post-it notes and scrawled reminders served as to-do lists in the past, the rise of the PDA — and subsequently the smartphone — has prompted many to turn to their portables for life management.

From the filing's background:
However, the timeliness and accuracy of a notification provided to a user of a reminder application depends almost entirely on input received from the user. For example, if a user enters, in a reminder application, a wrong date for an important event, then the user might not receive a notification of the event until after the event occurs. As another example, if a user provides a generic description of a task (e.g., "send him an email") in a to-do application, then, when the user later reads the description, the user might not remember who "him" is and/or what the content of the email should be. In other words, when it comes to reminder and to-do applications, the old adage of "garbage in garbage out" is applicable.

Apple's invention covers generating, organizing and triggering the notification of tasks in an intelligent way by leveraging modern technology, especially pertaining to software-based solutions like voice-recognition and cloud computing.

With the system, a contextualized task is created by taking a user's input, whether it be spoken or typed in, and extracting information to determine other details not included in the original request. For example, a user might say, "Call George at 5 p.m. today." There could be multiple contacts with that name, but by using context, such as a recent voice message or email associated with a certain George, the system can determine which person to call.

To organize the multiple tasks, the task manager can intelligently decipher where a note should be stored by picking out data points from the user's input. For example, "Get milk" may be stored in a section dedicated to grocery purchases, a notification for which can be triggered when the device is near or inside a grocery store.

Lists can be viewed in a number of ways, including stacks, day-to-day lists and location-based lists. So-called "smart lists" parse task metadata to automatically generate task groups, while calendar events use the date and time to manage upcoming to-dos.

List View

List view, including search utility (left).


When the time comes for the to-do event to be triggered, the system takes into account "characteristics of a device" to determine how the user is alerted. The filing notes that time may not even play a role in the triggering of an event, as location of a device, what the device is displaying or how the device is moving are all factors in a generated notification. For example, if it is determined, through geofencing or monitoring of a device's activity, that a user is at work, a notification may be triggered.

Such capabilities exist in the current iteration of iOS, however the invention goes further, giving examples like, "Remind me to call my mom next time I am on the phone." Certain "exogenous triggers," or a trigger based on criteria outside of the device, can also be used to generate alerts, an example being, "Remind me an hour before the surf is up."

All To-do

To-do list views.


All of the functions listed above rely on cloud-based computing, much like the current Siri virtual assistant, as natural voice processing and constant monitoring of "exogenous triggers" would tax a portable device's precious energy supply. Not all triggers can be done in the cloud, however, as location and on-board processes are also monitored by the task manager.

As with many Apple patent filings, the smart to-do list may never make it to an iDevice or other future consumer product.