Apple’s Boston-Area Team: Working on Speech in Nuance’s Backyard

It’s been one of the Boston-area tech industry’s more intriguing questions for months: Just what is Apple doing here?

Today, we’ve got an answer.

Apple has assembled a small team of notable names in speech technology and is looking to expand those efforts in the Boston area, industry sources tell Xconomy.

Based on their online job profiles, we can say that members of the Apple speech team here are working on Siri, the company’s voice-activated virtual assistant. Details beyond that are hard to come by, however, even for others in the field.

“They won’t tell us what they’re doing,” says Jim Glass, who heads MIT’s Spoken Language Systems Group. “We can only guess.”

Fittingly, the current Boston-area Apple speech team all once worked at VoiceSignal Technologies, a speech software company that was purchased for $293 million by Burlington, MA-based Nuance in 2007.

The group includes Gunnar Evermann, who stayed at Nuance for nearly four years before joining Apple in July 2011. Evermann previously worked for Apple in California, but moved back to the Boston area recently, helping to spark the company’s office in this area, sources said. His job is listed as “manager, Siri Speech.”

Evermann is joined by Larry Gillick, who was a vice president of research at Nuance after the VoiceSignal acquisition. More recently, he worked as a consultant and as chief scientist at EnglishCentral, a venture-backed online language instruction startup. Gillick’s job title at Apple is “chief speech scientist, Siri.”

Also on the team is Don McAllaster, listed as a senior research scientist who joined Apple in 2012. McAllaster has a long resume as a top research scientist with companies in the speech field, stretching back to Dragon Systems, where he also worked alongside Gillick.

News of Apple opening a Kendall Square office was first reported by The Boston Globe in January.

Although the Apple speech team here is small, its mere presence in the Boston area is notable for several reasons.

First of all, Apple hasn’t typically maintained many engineering teams far from its corporate headquarters in Cupertino, CA. And compared with rivals like Microsoft and Google, Apple doesn’t have a track record of focusing on in-house research of the type you might expect from hires like Gillick and McAllaster, who have spent years in speech technology research.

You’d have to imagine that sets off alarm bells at Nuance, which has traditionally supplied the speech-recognition technology inside Siri. By opening its own speech-technology office here—stocked with former Nuance employees, no less—Apple could be signaling a move away from relying on Nuance for Siri’s guts. (Nuance, as is its policy, declined comment on any partnerships or other companies.)

Such a move would make sense for Apple, a company that doesn’t like giving other companies the keys to critical software services.

One glaring example is Apple’s mobile mapping app, which the company deployed after having no answer for Google’s own market-leading maps for many years. Apple was so eager to make that switch that it substituted in-house mapping for Google’s version before the service was ready, resulting in many angry customers and a rare public apology.

With its own speech team here, Apple is also joining competitors Microsoft and Amazon in plumbing the area around MIT for talent.

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that former MIT Lincoln Laboratory staffer TJ Hazen would be leading a new initiative at its NERD Center “to advance the state of the art in making all kinds of software easier, more natural and more intuitive to use, with a particular emphasis on speech and language processing capabilities.”

Amazon, meanwhile, is looking to hire people with some of the same speech-technology skills. Amazon is advertising for speech-tech talent in Cambridge as part of a multi-city R&D program whose “mission is to push the envelope in automatic speech recognition (ASR), natural language understanding (NLU), and audio signal processing.” The company has plenty of room to fill—according to real estate records, Amazon has a long-term lease on nearly 130,000 square feet of office space at 101 Main Street in Cambridge.

Now, it sounds like those programs will have to contend with the tech industry’s reigning king in the neighborhood.

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