A prototype of an intelligent textbook that answers students’ questions, engages their interest, and improves their understanding. Watch our introduction video


ask a question

define Define cellular respiration
structure What is the structure of a chloroplast?
function What is the function of a plasma membrane in a eukaryotic cell?
compare What are the differences between chloroplasts and mitochondria?
relate If the chloroplasts were removed from a plant, what events would be affected?
search Search book for photosynthesis

The Basics

Inquire is an iPad app that combines the popular Campbell Biology textbook with a knowledge representation and reasoning system that answers students’ questions about the material.

Student with Inquire on her iPad.

Science textbooks are complex and intimidating: a typical college-level biology textbook introduces thousands of new concepts and tens-of-thousands of relationships between them. By providing quick, factual answers and repeatedly exposing students to the patterns of comparing and relating concepts that are fundamental to human learning, Inquire addresses this challenge head-on.

Inquire is part of an ongoing research project and is not yet available as a product. Inquire is funded by Vulcan Inc. and developed at SRI International.


Inquire is an electronic textbook with expanded content and interactive features enabled by deep integration with AI technologies. As a student reads, Inquire encourages “active reading” by defining key terms and suggesting questions that prompt the student to reflect on what she’s reading. Later as she does homework, Inquire helps by giving her precise answers to her questions, linking to related content from the book, and enabling her to dive deep into a topic without having to worry about the accuracy or relevance of the information.


Inquire extends the content of Campbell Biology with a conceptual model representing the knowledge in the textbook. This conceptual model, created by educators based on the textbook, eliminates the ambiguities of the original text and enables our reasoning engine to provide precise answers to students’ questions.

To get an idea of how Inquire works, check out our technology video or the table below that compares Inquire with other AI systems. To dive into specifics, please see our publications.

Biologist using a PC to construct one of Inquire’s conceptual models.
System Scope Input Result Core Technology
intelligent textbook
single textbook simple English queries formatted data and relevant textbook content symbolic AI
Wolfram Alpha
computational knowledge engine
curated data from “primary sources” word phrases with mathematical operators formatted data Mathematica
virtual personal assistant
emails, calendar, weather, maps, movies, etc. voice commands performs tasks service integration via speech dialog
Google Search
index of world’s information
open domain text on the web keywords and search queries web documents statistical AI, PageRank

Ongoing Research

As a potential product, Inquire has already demonstrated its value to students in a small-scale evaluation in 2012; as an ongoing research project, our work continues to advance the state of the art in classical AI by addressing the grand challenge of building a knowledge base from a textbook and giving detailed answers to a wide variety of questions. Inquire shows great promise for education, but is not yet available as a product that can be used in the classroom.

January 2012 Evaluation

In a study in January 2012, we tested Inquire against both electronic and paper versions of the textbook with groups of biology students from De Anza College. Each group of 24–25 students spent four hours studying a section of text, completing a homework assignment, and then taking a closed-book quiz.

Students using Inquire received significantly higher scores on the homework and quiz, a full letter grade on average. In addition, no Inquire student got a D or F on the quiz, while nearly a third of the other students did (result was not statistically significant). This suggests Inquire may be especially helpful for lower performing students, which we hope to explore in a future study.

Average Grades
Quiz Grade Distribution
  • Bar graph showing the average quiz and homework grades for each of our three conditions.
  • Graph showing the quiz grade distribution between our three conditions.
Next Steps

By the end of 2013, we will expand our reasoning system to support all 8 “Core Themes” of Biology—from regulation and energy transfer to evolution—and build a representation of all 56 chapters of Campbell Biology (the current prototype only covers chapters 2–21). We will also investigate our solution’s generalization to other textbooks and undertake a larger-scale longitudinal study of Inquire’s educational effectiveness.

Average Grades
Quiz Grade Distribution
  • Bar graph showing the average quiz and homework grades for each of our three conditions.
  • Graph showing the quiz grade distribution between our three conditions.
Project Halo logo: a stylized bust of Aristotle.

Inquire is part of Project Halo, a 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 an ability to teach that knowledge to students in a way they can understand.

Learn More

Inquire is a product of the Artificial Intelligence Center at SRI International, a nonprofit research institute with a rich history of innovation from the computer mouse to the Siri virtual assistant.

This work has been funded by Vulcan Inc., a company founded in 1986 by Microsoft co‑founder Paul G. Allen to manage his business and charitable endeavors.


Inquire is a research project and is not currently available for commercial or individual use. Please direct all inquiries to info@projecthalo.com.

In the News

Inquire: An Intelligent Textbook—“Best Video” Award  Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), July 2012.

“The intelligent textbook that helps students learn”  New Scientist Magazine, 4 August 2012.

Publications see all

Inquire Biology: A Textbook that Answers Questions  AI Magazine, Fall 2013.