by Pia K. Hansen

Say you're planning a trip to Canada but aren't quite sure where you want to go. You log on to the travel agency's Web site and tell the computer that you'd like to go to Calgary, or perhaps Ottawa. The computer then asks you what you'd like to do on your vacation, and you tell it about the cool art shows you'd like to see, the cafes you like to hang out at and the quaint little bed and breakfast you're hoping to find. The computer tells you about a gallery in Ottawa and how there's exactly the right type of bed and breakfast on the outskirts of town, and that it has a special right now. You tell the computer to go ahead and book the trip.

Yes, tell, as in speaking aloud: You talk to the Web site, and the Web site talks back to you. It's one of the many applications of artificial intelligence, and local company Next IT is developing some of the most cutting-edge software in the field.

"The Web site talks back to you. It's a lot like having a conversation, and it uses natural language," says Brandon Tanner, director of business development at Next IT. "You can ask the computer, 'What would be a good career path for me?' And the computer will ask you, 'What's your experience?' It's a lot like you're talking to someone, and the software 'learns' more on a continuing basis."

This type of software is called a "bot" -- as in "robot."

"The bot knows about 80 percent of what it needs to know, so if it doesn't know the answer to what you're asking, it'll pass you on to a human or follow whatever other protocol it's been programmed to follow," says Tanner.

Just imagine the application of this software (called Active Agent AI) in customer service and sales departments.

Another top-of-the-line software package from Next IT is called Active Sentri AI. This application monitors all activity on a computer or desktop. Yes, it's perfect for the boss who wants to know how much time the employees really spend on personal e-mail, but it's geared toward banks and other service organizations that handle large amounts of sensitive data.

"If you work in a call center and you try to copy 16 credit card numbers into Outlook Express, the bot knows you are not supposed to do that," explains Tanner. "Not only does the bot report this to your supervisor, it also shuts down the applications you are working in so you can't copy the numbers. It's preventative, in other words."

Already successfully marketing its products, Next IT occupies the 11th floor in the Paulsen Building in downtown Spokane. The company is only 18 months old and was founded by Fred A. Brown, founder of LineSoft. Brown is no stranger to success: Liberty Lake-based LineSoft developed automated design software for utility companies and grew with record speed from a basement engineering operation to a nationwide company with 210 employees in 2001. Brown later sold LineSoft to Itron, but didn't quit the business. Instead he founded Next IT. Starting out with just six employees, today the company employs about 35 people.

Tanner says the hiring will continue more people as the different software packages take off and clients such as the military and the U.S. government sign contracts.

Tanner got to work for Next IT after the company he co-founded, A Perfect Web, was acquired by Brown.

"I started A Perfect Web together with my business partner Sam Fleming in 1996," says Tanner. Let's not forget to mention that the two were still in college, attending Whitworth, when they started their own software company. Tanner graduated in '97.

"After that, we started doing A Perfect Web full time. This," he says gesturing at the large, glass-encased conference room and the stunning view of Spokane, "is my first real job."

He says he would recommend the Spokane area to someone looking to start or relocate a high-tech company.

"It's definitely getting better here," he says. "There are local groups that have taken a real proactive stand on business development and initiatives such as Connect from INTEC. That helps."

Traditional organizations play a role, too, he says.

"The Chamber helped out A Perfect Web a ton," says Tanner. "It was a huge benefit for us, but when it came to [Next IT's] acquisition of A Perfect Web, INTEC was a huge part of that, too."

Tanner doesn't worry about being able to fill the high-tech positions that soon will become available. He says that the company provides flexible schedules for people who need them and, overall, an exciting environment.

"Yes, we do have a Foosball table and all that," he says with a chuckle. "But it's working for a guy like Fred Brown who is so innovative and so energetic about everything. That's so great -- his energy really trickles down. And then it's the technology we're developing -- it's so far out there and that's really exciting."

Publication date: 02/26/04

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