How Old Is Siri, and How Did She End Up on Your iPhone?
Siri can help you check the weather or find a restaurant. The assistant will open an app for you, send a text, or write a note. She’ll also respond to even the most mundane questions with patience and a sense of humor, which comes in handy since there are plenty of funny things to ask Siri if you specifically want a humorous response. But when you stop to consider how long we’ve been talking to — and about — Siri, you start to wonder: How old is Siri? Who is Siri? And how did she end up on Apple’s iPhone, iPad, and soon, the Mac?
Apple unveiled Siri with the iPhone 4s in October 2011. (So how old is Siri? The simplest answer — and you’ll realize soon that there are several answers — is that she’s just about five years old.) For many of the years since she made her debut on the iPhone 4s, the exact story of Siri’s origin has been elusive. But years later, we finally know many of the details. Norman Winarsky, vice president of ventures at SRI International and a co-founder of Siri, reported for the Harvard Business Review in 2015 that the path to putting the AI-powered assistant on the iPhone was “a long road with a couple of surprising turns.”
It all got started with SRI International, which was founded as the Stanford Research Institute in 1946 and has been independent since 1970. Its modus operandi is to lead research projects funded by corporations or government agencies, and then to spin out the most promising tech into standalone startups. The idea for Siri began in 2003, when the primary uses of phones were messaging and ringtones. SRI founded a team called Vanguard “to put intelligence into the smartphone so that users could ask it by text or voice to perform tasks, such as scheduling a call among multiple parties, placing a call, or ordering groceries.”
The team was inspired by concepts from a DARPA program to develop a “cognitive” software assistant. Over several months, SRI zeroed in on the concept of a voice-driven “do engine.” The software would understand your query, automatically access the information you need, and distill it into an answer.
How old is Siri?
It turns out that creating a new paradigm for accessing and interacting with the internet was a tall order. And the technology behind the project didn’t all have a single start date. SRI had already launched Nuance in 1994, so converting speech to digital text was the easy part. “The hard part,” as Winarsky puts it, “was analyzing words so as to understand the user’s intent and then reason about and respond to the request. The computer had to identify concepts and associate groups of words with them. Humans perform such tasks easily, but most people believed they were impossible for computers.”
The basis for the technology had been developed by the SRI Speech Technology and Research Lab and SRI’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. Siri was founded as a separate venture and incorporated in 2007. (How old is Siri? Maybe nine years is a fair answer.) Former Motorola executive Dag Kittlaus became the venture’s chief executive. He left Motorola in 2007 to be an entrepreneur-in-residence at SRI, where Adam Cheyer tells The Startup Kittlaus he was able to “wander the halls and talk to various scientists.” Kittlaus ended up on the Siri team, which was working on the technical and business approach to the assistant — one that they envisioned not only saving users time and energy, but also surprising and delighting them.
When asked a question, Siri would send the audio to a server. Speech recognition software would then transcribe the spoken words, and Siri would have to figure out what they meant. From there, the software would pick the most probable action. The original business model hinged on collecting fees for helping to execute transactions, and after six months of crafting the value proposition, the team sought outside investment. They raised $8.5 million, and after many delays and challenges, completed user testing from November 2009 to February 2010.
What happened when Siri launched as an app?
When the app was launched in early 2010, it made it into the top 50 of all iOS apps and was the top lifestyle app. So how old is Siri? Siri as an assistant on Apple’s platform is just over six years old. Just weeks after the app launched on the iOS App Store, Kittlaus received a call from Steve Jobs, who flew him to Cupertino to talk about the future of the technology. Jobs didn’t love the name Siri. Nonetheless, he was interested in using the technology to create a speech interface for the iPhone and acquired the company.
Cheyer explains that Jobs saw Siri as a transformative technology “that could revolutionize and integrate every aspect of what Apple did.” Siri’s 24-person team moved to Apple’s headquarters, and a year later, Siri became “the core platform for a highly popular service on Apple’s new iPhone 4S.” Bianca Bosker reported for the Huffington Post in 2013 that with Kittlaus at the helm, Siri had boasted an irreverent tone and a robust set of skills, including support for open-ended queries, follow-up questions, and a wide variety of third-party integrations.
But Apple “washed Siri’s mouth out with soap and curbed many of its talents.” Sixteen months after acquiring the technology for a reported $150 to $250 million, Apple expanded Siri’s linguistic range from one to multiple languages. Apple scaled the assistant to serve millions of people and deeply integrated it into the iPhone and its apps. Crucially, Apple also equipped Siri with a voice to speak its answers. (Originally, Siri had only offered written responses).
Who is Siri?
That’s where we get to the story of the voice actress who unwittingly became the voice of Apple’s voice assistant. As Jessica Ravitz reported for CNN in 2013, the original voice of Siri in the United States was that of Susan Bennett. Bennett was a voiceover actor who had laid down recordings for a client years earlier and “had no idea she’d someday be speaking to more than 100 million people through a not-yet-invented phone.”
Again, we can ask: How old is Siri? Perhaps older than you might imagine based on the iPhone 4s’s 2011 release date. Bennett started the process that would make her the original voice of the most iconic digital assistant more than 10 years ago, back in 2005. At the time, software firm ScanSoft was looking for a voice to use in a new project. It reached out to GM Voices, a company that recorded voices for automated voice technologies. After ScanSoft heard her recordings, Bennett signed a contract to use her voice in recordings for a database to construct speech.
In July 2005, Bennett spent four hours each day in her home recording booth, reading nonsensical phrases and sentences. Those sentences were broken down into vowels, consents, syllables, and diphthongs. Then, they were synthesized through a process called concatenation to build words, sentences, and paragraphs. Bennett never knew exactly how the recordings would be used.
In October 2005, ScanSoft bought and took on the name of Nuance Communications, the voice recognition company founded by SRI. MG Siegler reported for TechCrunch soon after the iPhone 4s was introduced in October 2011 that Apple tried technology from Vlingo and Nuance to provide a voice for Siri. Nuance’s tech — and Bennett’s voice — became “a part of Apple’s implementation of Siri” even if no one would officially admit it. “So for now,” Siegler wrote, “it’s Apple and Siri sitting in a tree — with Nuance sitting behind Siri in an invisibility cloak.”
What’s next for Siri?
It wasn’t until May 2013 that Nunce confirmed that its voice technology was behind Siri. As Kevin Bostic reported for Apple Insider, Nuance chief executive Paul Ricci said that his company was “the fundamental provider of voice recognition for Apple.” He explained that Nuance didn’t handle Siri’s artificial intelligence layers, just the voice recognition. But he added that Siri had both embedded and cloud technology for voice recognition. Roger Kay reported for Forbes in 2014 that even a year after Ricci disclosed Nuance’s relationship with Apple, Nuance’s staff was still reluctant to talk about it.
In recent years, iOS users have realized that Apple stripped out many of Siri’s original features when it integrated the assistant into the iPhone 4s. At its debut in 2010, Siri could connect with 42 different web services to buy tickets, reserve a table, or summon a taxi. And that was all without opening an app, registering for a service, or placing a call. Booker reports that the assistant was “already on the verge of ‘intuiting’ a user’s pet peeves and preferences to the point that it would have been able to seamlessly match its suggestions to his or her personality.”
The capabilities of Siri’s past self offer a blueprint for what Siri will provide in the future as Apple opens the assistant up to the inventions and innovations of third-party developers. Some of the team members behind the original Siri have noted that Apple’s version hadn’t lived up to its potential. But integrations with the apps in the app store will likely help Siri to fulfill the original dream of the “do engine.” Siri will help users to automate tasks and delegate annoying tasks to an assistant that won’t complain but will respond with quick solutions and a bit of humor.