Are we on the cusp of an era of ubiquitous “virtual personal assistants”? If Steve Jobs has his way, we just might be.
Back in the spring of 2010, Apple acquired Siri, a company that produced an app that described itself in just those terms. Now, clues dug up recently by 9to5Mac, a site dedicated to scrutinizing all things Apple, suggest that Apple may be ready to introduce Siri-like features in the next version of iOS, its operating system for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.
If Apple is indeed about to launch a personal assistant, it could help set the iPhone apart from other smart phones in the market. Android’s voice-command system is considered one of its chief advantages over the iPhone, but a Siri-derived personal assistant would add more voice functionality, eliminating Android’s advantage. But it will be a gamble, as other efforts to foist a personal assistant upon computer users have backfired badly. Remember Clippy, the animated paper clip that would pop up every time you tried to write a letter in Microsoft Word?
In a screenshot that 9to5Mac turned up, apparently from the menu on an iPhone “test unit,” one button reads “Assistant”; another reads “Speaker,” suggesting that the assistant can talk back, if you want it to; and a tab reading “MyInfo” suggests that the assistant will be able to use data on your phone such as address book contacts and location to help find the information you want. 9to5Mac further claims to have plumbed the depths of an iOS software development kit and found lines of code that correspond to the features in the screenshot.
Siri’s original app, which licensed voice recognition technology from Nuance, a company based in Burlington, Massachusetts, enabled users to perform searches and make appointments or reservations using voice commands. It worked remarkably well for these simple tasks. (You can see a video of it in action here.)
Work on Siri began about eight years ago, when DARPA funded a massive AI initiative called CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes). The idea, says Norman Winarsky, vice president of ventures at SRI, based in Menlo Park, California, the prime contractor for CALO, was to develop a virtual personal assistant as good as the character of Radar O’Reilly on the TV show M*A*S*H. “Radar always knew what the captain wanted before the captain knew what the captain wanted,” says Winarsky.
As the CALO program wound down, SRI recognized a massive market opportunity in the research it had been doing. Over a period of a few years, SRI built the company Siri and launched an app.