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

6/14/10Follow @wroush

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CALO had happened, so the machine learning could be supported in real time. And finally, the iTunes app marketplace. The walled garden was coming down—Apple deserves huge credit for that.”

The rest of Siri’s story has been thoroughly covered by the tech blogs: The company demonstrated the mobile app at several tech conferences in 2009, released it into the wild on February 4, 2010 (for the iPhone 3GS only), and created some serious buzz at the South by Southwest geekfest in March. Then, on April 28, less than three months after the app’s debut, news emerged that Apple had purchased the startup.

The financial terms of the acquisition weren’t disclosed, and Winarsky and Mark say they can’t talk about the deal, even to speculate on what future Apple might see for the technology. Kittlaus, Cheyer, and the rest of the Siri team are now employees at Apple, which didn’t reply to my request for interviews. For now, the Siri app is still available in the App Store—but Apple has a pattern of shuttering the services it acquires, presumably in order to redeploy their technologies elsewhere (see Lala Media, which Apple acquired in early December and closed on May 31).

But even if Siri were to disappear for a time, Winarsky wouldn’t be too worried. When I put it to him that $150 million was a lot for taxpayers to spend on a technology that’s now been taken inside Apple, he corrected my premise on several counts, arguing that acquisitions are a natural outcome of SRI’s spinoff process.

“I think the Bayh-Dole Act is one of the most brilliant acts in the history of Congress,” Winarsky says. “What you call ‘taking the technology inside’ has been responsible in large part for the creation of companies like Intel, Cisco, Apple, and Sun. The government would have had to pay billions of dollars, perhaps, to continue to advance this technology, while instead the commercial marketplace is making it available to everybody. Consumer revenue is what drives future products, rather than our taxes.”

Winarsky also emphasizes that the intellectual property that SRI licensed to Siri—the technology now controlled by Apple—is only a small slice of the IP generated by the CALO project. In fact, he says SRI will have news “within a month or two” about a new CALO spinoff, focused on a different domain from mobile search.

“Apple no more owns all of the technology for the virtual personal assistant than they own all of AI or all of speech or math or physics,” Winarsky sums up. “You can imagine using a virtual personal assistant to support you in your need to deal with your healthcare or your doctors, or to do your shopping online, or to help sales agents. Basically, this is about the creation of the next generation of assistants.” And Siri, he says, is only the start.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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