The Real History Of How Siri Came To Be. Defense Contracts, DARPA, DOD, CALO, PAL.

The Real History Of How Siri Came To Be. Defense Contracts, DARPA, DOD, CALO, PAL.

Ultimately inspired by the super-computer HAL, although many iPhone owners are seemingly unaware of it, Apple’s fun-loving, “sassy” voice assistant, Siri – originally introduced with the launch of the iPhone 4S in 2011 – was, (in fact), born out of the core artificial intelligence technology used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – technology which is reportedly still used to assist military personnel, today.

The Huffington Post is out with a fascinating report this afternoon, which aims to detail just how the intelligent assistant came to be the seemingly “innocent,” consumer-ready assistant we know today.

Our story starts with the ‘CALO’ project, which was part of the PAL (Personal Assistant that Learns) program. Originally funded by the Defense Department’s investment arm – DARPA – to the tune of $150-250 Million dollars, the project really laid the groundwork for “AI” (Artificial Intelligence) going forward, and was perhaps the first project that really showed just how capable computers were of interpreting the world that surrounded them.


“CALO was put together at a time when many people said AI was a waste of time,” Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster and associate professor at Stanford University, explains in the report. “It had failed multiple times, skepticism was high and a lot of people thought it was a dumb idea.”

The publication notes that the CALO project demonstrated that a machine could “learn in real-time” through something it referred to as its “lived experience.”

Previously, artificial intelligence software had been coached “in vitro,” meaning a machine-learning algorithm would be applied to a fixed set of data, then judged on how it handled that information. Every part of CALO instead had to learn “in vivo,” training itself as it performed tasks using an uncontrolled diet of information.

Dag Kittlaus, Siri’s co-founder, (and who had reportedly worked at DARPA previously), was said to have taken an immediate shine to CALO’s capabilities, and later decided to create a start-up called “Siri” to put the technology into practice.

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The aim was to create a “do engine”. Not a “search” engine — a search engine would require a user to research themselves from a list of presented search results. A “do” engine, on the other hand, could carry out a conversation with the user, to further determine what it was that user required.

Siri was born.

Rising from the fires of what is now considered to have been “the largest AI program in history,” Siri was, for a short time, available as a stand-alone application, a FREE download through the iTunes App Store. Just weeks after the application hit the digital store, however, Apple was said to have shown great interest in the technology.


As the story goes:

In February 2010, three weeks after Siri debuted as an independently developed iPhone app, Kittlaus received a call from a mystery number — one he nearly missed thanks to a glitchy, unresponsive iPhone screen.

It was Steve Jobs, and he wanted to meet. The next day.

“Siri’s co-founders spent three hours with Jobs at his Palo Alto home discussing the future of do engines and how people could converse with machines (Jobs loved Siri’s snark),” the Huffington’s report cites. “Apple quickly followed up with an interest in acquiring the young company.”

Steve was said to have expressed his thoughts on the technology, specifically noting that he thought the guys at Siri had ‘cracked the paradigm’ needed to move the “AI” sector forward. If Google, and its invention of the search engine, was the internet’s second major paradigm shift, Jobs believed that Siri was surely the third in waiting.

Apple just had to have Siri.

What you perhaps weren’t aware of, however, is that Apple nearly didn’t get its wish. This was because U.S wireless carrier, Verizon, had shown immediate interest in the DARPA-born technology which ultimately powered Siri, too.

“In the fall of 2009, several months before Apple approached Siri, Verizon had signed a deal with the startup to make Siri a default app on all Android phones set to launch in the new year. When Apple swooped in to buy Siri, it insisted on making the assistant exclusive to Apple devices, and nixed the Verizon deal,” The Huffington Post writes.

“In the process, it narrowly avoided seeing Siri become a selling point for smartphones powered by its biggest rival, Google.” Yes, somewhere in the vaults of Verizon’s corporate headquarters, there are likely (never-released) commercials which show Siri as one of Android‘s main add-ons. Just the thought of it, right?

The rest is pretty much history. After the acquisition, Apple took Siri’s three co-founders, Cheyer, Kittlaus and Gruber, alongside their 24-person team to its headquarters up in Cupertino, California, where the company would begin developing the first iteration of its consumer-focused voice assistant, Siri.

The company would later hold a media event that October to introduce “Siri” to the world, making sure first to pull the freely available version of the assistant from its App Store. The assistant launched as a watered-down version of its previous self which Kittlaus had seen in operation at DARPA, and would later be sold as a flagship feature of the firm’s “iPhone 4S,” and future smartphone models.

Read the whole history of Siri at The Huffington Post.

/ CultOfMac