Serious About Siri

Adam Cheyer '88
Mike Lovett
Adam Cheyer '88

Apple’s sassy anthropomorphic digital personal assistant knows how to skirt a personal question. Ask her who she is and she replies, “I’m Siri. But I don’t like talking about myself. How can I help you?”

Yet the evasive Siri knows an awful lot about us: our names, contacts and schedules. Our locations and to-do lists. Our histories. She can even be a little intrusive at times, like when she tells us to bring an umbrella because it’s going to rain.

If Siri is a modern-day Wizard of Oz, then Adam Cheyer ’88 is the man behind the curtain. Twenty years ago, at the nonprofit research institute SRI International, Cheyer developed the first prototype for Siri. In 2003, with funding from the U.S. Defense Department, the prototype evolved as part of the largest artificial-intelligence project in U.S. history. In 2007, SRI spun off Siri Inc. to commercialize the technology for consumer use.

Siri was never meant to answer philosophical questions like “Who is God?” or playful ones like “What are you wearing?” Cheyer explained in an interview on campus last fall after being named Brandeis Computer Science Entrepreneur of the Year. Siri was developed as a “do-engine” and a “knowledge navigator,” allowing people quick and easy access to details related to travel, scheduling, weather and other kinds of information.

The biggest challenge Cheyer faced in developing Siri, he says, was teaching the software to recognize and assign meaning to words — something humans do innately. For instance, Siri needed to be able to know when a query about “the Giants” referred to the pro football or baseball team, or just a group of really tall people.

Development issues resolved, Siri Inc. went public in February 2008, and the first version of the voice-activated personal assistant was released as a free application in the Apple Store. Cheyer and his business colleagues quickly realized that Siri’s chatty personality — like her reminding you that you should pack your umbrella — is what makes her simply irresistible.

A few weeks after Siri was released in the app store, Cheyer, company CEO Dag Kittlaus and Siri co-founder Tom Gruber received a call from Apple CEO Steve Jobs to discuss incorporating Siri software into Apple products.

“If it’s going to be a feature hidden away, then we’re not interested,” Cheyer recalls telling Jobs — “we want to change the world.” If Jobs was envisioning making Siri a universal, integral component of interaction, then Cheyer and his colleagues were ready to talk.

Two years later, in 2010, Apple bought Siri Inc. for a figure between $100-200 million, according to Business Insider. Although Siri continued to be available in the app store, the fully-integrated-into-the-Apple-experience technology was not publicly revealed until the launch of Apple’s iPhone 4S in early October 2011. Jobs died the day after the launch.

“I have no idea what he thought [about the new technology], but I’d like to think that this was something he cared a lot about and had a lot of interaction with,” says Cheyer. “I’d like to think that he said, ‘This is good. Apple’s in good hands going forward.’”

Over the last half-dozen years, Cheyer has become particularly interested in harnessing computer technology to bring about social change. He was part of the founding team at Change.org, the world’s largest online-petition platform. Today, the website has more than 25 million active users and is growing by more than 2 million each month.

Last June, Cheyer left Apple to spend more time with his family and think about what’s next. Siri, he says today, is “absolutely just scratching the surface of what is possible.” He’s still very attached to her. “People have their own relationship with Siri, as do I,” he says.

Ironically, despite his executive-level success, Cheyer had never dreamed of having his own personal assistant. “It’s funny, because I’ve always felt awkward asking someone to do something for me I could do myself,” he says.

So, does anyone really know Siri? “She reveals herself over time,” Cheyer says, “if you ask her questions — about her favorite color, if she is an Apple employee or if she is human. That said, Siri will always remain largely mysterious. It’s part of her appeal.”

Robyn Spector is an American studies major.

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