The Story of Siri, from Birth at SRI to Acquisition by Apple—Virtual Personal Assistants Go Mobile

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SRI researcher Douglas Engelbart in 1968, in a lecture in San Francisco that has been called “the mother of all demos.”

“The original concept that Doug was so fond of was human augmentation,” says Winarsky. “He was talking about a different kind of augmentation than Siri. A lot of what we are doing now automates processes that Engelbart never conceived of, such as natural language understanding and real-time machine learning. But the overall theme remains the same.”

In the early 2000s, according to Mark, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) asked SRI to lead a project investigating the feasibility of a “personalized assistant that learns”—a system that could help commanders and staff manage information more effectively in military command-and-control environments. Giving such a system learning capabilities was key, Mark says. “There is an enormous burden to get all of the knowledge into the system that it really needs to have, and it is never going to stay current unless there is some kind of learning,” he explains. The project SRI launched to explore many different kinds of computer learning was called CALO, for Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes.

Mark became CALO’s principal investigator, and at DARPA’s request, he focused the work on creating a virtual office assistant. “The reason they asked us to do that was that it was a very large team that included about 20 universities across the country, and the one thing we all had in common is that we were all knowledgeable about working in office environments,” Mark says. “They wanted the team to understand the domain and work in that domain themselves.” In other words, DARPA wanted the CALO researchers to eat their own dog food.

Around the same time, but separate from the CALO project, Winarsky and Mark had launched an internal SRI study that they code-named Vanguard. It was an attempt to understand and improve the puzzling economics of the mobile telephony industry.

“What was happening in the industry was that revenue from voice services was going to zero on a very sad-looking, downward exponential curve, and the hope of the industry was data services revenue, which was projected to have a very happy, upward exponential curve,” Mark says. “The problem was that the revenues from data services were not actually occurring, or were not increasing nearly enough to compensate. Everybody knew that. So Norman and I brainstormed and came up with a thesis, which was that it was because data services were just too hard to use.”

People were eager to user their mobile devices to accomplish more in their lives, but the software that wireless operators and their partners had come up with to that point was simply too clunky, Mark believed. “We went around and talked to a whole lot of people in the industry, the carriers and the handset makers and people in the general industry, and they essentially validated that,” Mark says. “They also started sponsoring some R&D in that space.”

Eventually, Vanguard met CALO. “We knew there was this incredible need for a better way to deal with services in the mobile world,” says Mark. “So we took the CALO concept of an office assistant, and this driving need for assistance in the mobile world, and created the basic Siri concept.”

At this point in the story, a little detour into SRI’s own business model and innovation philosophy is required. More than 80 percent of the research SRI does is funded by the federal government. Thanks to the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which gave universities, small businesses, and non-profits the rights to intellectual property arising from federal funding, SRI is able to license the results of its work to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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