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The Artificial Intelligence behind Siri – Adam Cheyer at #websummit

Posted by Marie Steinthaler
November 7, 2013

AI behind Siri Websummit

Websummit Sketchnotes: The Artificial Intelligence behind Siri (click for large img)

There were a lot of great talks at Websummit. One of them was from the inventor of Siri, Adam Cheyer, on the artificial intelligence behind this groundbreaking VPA (virtual personal assistant). We sat in and listened to the history behind Siri, and found out some cool facts. Take a look at the sketchnotes to find out the details, and read the summary here.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

In his 1987 books Odyssey, Apple CEO John Sculley described the concept of the “Knowledge Navigator” and predicted the development of Siri over 20 years ago – missing the exact date by only 3 weeks.

Great products are built iteratively, and often take years to come to complete fruition.  Whether it’s Siri building on the ideas laid out by Sculley’s Knowledge Navigator, or the latest movement sensors building on the limited success of pedometers – always remember that a great innovation might start small and take years to build! (see also the difference between iterative and disruptive innovation in the Lean Entrepreneur).

Siri doesn’t use linguistics, but ‘probabilistics’

One might think that Siri’s developers used advanced linguistic concepts to get it as smart as it is.  However, Adam Cheyer’s team actually refrained from bringing in any linguists, and instead relied on teaching the AI concepts, and training it using a probabilistic approach.  This meant that later on, the localisation of Siri into other languages, became a lot simpler since it didn’t rely on language-specific principles.

So. Much. Ambiguity.

Anyone building a new product will be familiar with the amount of uncertainty and ambiguity.  Whether it’s a financial assumption, an odd user behaviour or unpredictable technology – there’s always an unknown unknown that crops up in the best/worst of places.  Take this up a notch for Siri’s natural language processing.  Imagine the simple sentence:

Book 5 Star Restaurant in Boston

Then imagine all the different meanings that are possible for all elements of the sentence.  Book isn’t just a verb, it’s also a noun for a paper-based narrative (what a longwinded way of describing a book!); 5 Star Restaurant is the name of hundreds of restaurants in the USA; there are at least a dozen Bostons… the list goes on.

The trick for Siri was to take into account the context of the user – location, usual activity, and much more.  It is this context that helps to break up these puzzling sentences into manageable chunks for the AI.

Why the name Siri?

Well, apparently every team member had their own favourite reason, but here are the two that Adam shared:

  • Siri means “secret” in Swahili. Adam likes working on secret projects, so that’s his fave.
  • Siri also means “beautiful woman that will lead you to victory” in Scandinavia. The CEO was Norwegian, so hey presto.

Whatever it means, Siri has become a household name after Apple purchased the IP and brought the idea of the VPA to the mass market with the iPhone – and we look forward to seeing the next product Adam’s team brings to the surface in the future!

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