October 4, 2011: With the unveiling of the new iPhone 4s, Apple introduces the world to Siri.
A groundbreaking example of AI in action, Siri’s debut fulfills a long-term dream at Apple. The company first predicted such a feature in the 1980s – with the Siri launch almost exactly the exact month Apple envisioned.
Siri launch: An 80s AI dream
Siri was one of the last projects Steve Jobs was heavily involved in at Apple when his health deteriorated. However, the origins of the intelligent voice assistant trace back to a 1980s Apple R&D initiative that took place after Jobs left the company. ->
In the late 1980s, Apple CEO John Sculley ordered Star Wars director George Lucas to make a concept video for what he called “Knowledge Navigator.”
The futuristic video, set with remarkable prescience in September 2011, contains a number of possible uses for a smart assistant. In one, a university professor uses an iPad-like device with an on-screen AI assistant, depicted as a bowler-wearing butler.
“Today you have faculty lunch at 12; you must take Cathy to the airport by 2pm; you have a lecture at 16:15 about deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, says the prototype Siri to the professor.
DARPA’s AI Assistant
At that time, the technology was nowhere near ready for prime time. It would remain so until 2003, when the US military think tank Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency began working on an AI assistant project. DARPA dreamed of a smart system that would help military commanders cope with the overwhelming amount of data they receive on a daily basis.
To bring this system to life, DARPA approached SRI International to create a five-year 500-person investigation. At the time, it was the largest AI project in history.
DARPA called its project CALO (short for Cognitive Assistant who teaches and organizes). The name was inspired by the Latin word calonis, which means “soldier’s servant.”
‘Your grip feels weak’
After half a decade of research, SRI International decided to launch a startup called “Siri” (a phonetic version of the company name). Siri was launched in the App Store in early 2010, connected to a number of web services. It can order taxis through TaxiMagic and retrieve concert data from StubHub, movie reviews from Rotten Tomatoes or restaurant data from Yelp.
It was also funny potluck, with liberal use of the F-bomb and a number of sarcastic responses. For example, ask for the nearest gym, and Siri said, “Yeah, your grip feels weak.”
Apple buys Siri
Apple bought Siri in April 2010 for an amount that was reportedly close to $ 200 million. The company immediately began figuring out how to bake Siri on the iPhone. And Jobs got practical about making the AI assistant user-friendly.
In some cases, this meant adding new capabilities, such as responses from spoken words (which the original Siri app did not offer). Siri could also retrieve data from other Apple apps.
In other cases, it meant fooling the service. For example, Apple removed the ability for Siri to respond to users’ written requests, and limited the AI Assistant to voice interactions.
Siri launch is a big deal for Apple
Apple considered Siri’s debut on the iPhone 4s a big deal. Siri’s ability to ask questions in natural language such as “What is the weather like today?” or “Find me a great Greek restaurant in Palo Alto” with exact oral answers was far ahead of what other companies like Google offered at the time.
Siri was the last product demo behind closed doors Jobs experienced at Apple before he resigned as CEO. During the demonstration, he tried to confuse Siri by asking “Are you a man or a woman?” Siri’s reply – “I have not had any sex, sir” – apparently pleased him.
Siri’s debut shows that AI is Apple’s next big thing
Today, deep learning technology and other innovations make Siri far more accurate and functional than the version that came with the iPhone 4s. Siri’s arrival on iPad, Mac and other Apple devices shows how much weight Apple puts on AI.
In the process, Siri – and its competitors – became less of a gimmick. The primary form factor for AI assistants also shifted from smartphones to smart speakers like the HomePod and Amazon’s ever-growing Echo series.
Are you using Siri today? Nearly a decade after the launch of Siri, how do you think it piles up against competing services from companies like Google, Microsoft and Amazon? Leave the comments below.