Spain’s Siri-challenger Sherpa learns English, arrives in the U.S.

A new voice digital assistant is on the scene in the U.S., but unlike other Siri-challengers Sherpa comes with some overseas work experience. Sherpa launched its Spanish-language Android app in October and has since risen up the Google(s goog) Play charts in Spain and Latin America. Sherpa has now learned English, and on Wednesday it launched in the U.S. in the Play store.

Most virtual assistants powered by natural language processing are taught to do specific tasks very well but tend to come up short when given unfamiliar assignments. For instance, Siri(s app) excels at jobs like making calendar appointments and dictating text messages but can be confounded by more general requests for information, usually resorting to simple web searches.

Sherpa Screenshot 2Sherpa CEO Xabi Uribe-Etxebarria said he set out to create a natural language platform that had a much greater scope of understanding, which could easily be applied to new tasks without “training” the app to perform them. He also wanted to create a language-independent platform, one that understood meaning and intent independent of a language’s vocabulary or syntax.

To that end, Uribe-Etxebarria and his machine-learning team developed a sort of meta-language, encompassing 250,000 semantic concepts accompanied by 5,000 rules used to order those concepts. Sherpa uses off-the-shelf speech recognition services (right now it uses Google’s speech API) to translate commands into its meta-language, and then it parses meaning and intent from the resulting string of concepts.

The result is a flexible virtual assistant that can easily be applied to new tasks, Uribe-Etxebarria said. Sherpa’s repertoire is constantly growing as it hooks into new apps and information sources. For instance, Sherpa has struck a deal with PayPal, allowing the app to make payments via voice command. It taps into Twitter’s API, letting users navigate their twitter feeds — toggling between mentions, direct messages and home stream views — through voice prompts. For general information requests, Sherpa has developed a nifty information card format, which aggregates information from a variety sources ranging from LinkedIn profiles to Wikipedia entries.

“We’ve gone beyond Siri in many cases,” Uribe-Etxebarria said. And given the flexibility of its technology, he added, Sherpa can continue to add new services and functions at a much quicker space than its competitors.

Still, Sherpa is entering an increasingly crowded space. New virtual assistants are popping up left and right, some very focused on specific tasks like Incredible Labs’ Donna, while some like Nuance’s Dragon technologies are spanning devices, trying to create a single virtual assistant for all things. And of course, Google and Apple are building their speech technologies directly into their phone operating systems – it’s hard to argue with the convenience of that big fat Siri button.

Sherpa got off the ground in Bilbao, Spain, but it now has offices in Redwood City, Calif. It has raised $1.6 million in angel funding.