Developing artificial intelligence
Adam Cheyer i88 created the idea of Siri 20 years ago
"Siri, who created you?"
"Like it says on the box, ... I was created by Apple in California," Siri responds in her sassy, anthropomorphic voice. But few, including Siri, know the true origins of Apple's popularized, intelligent personal assistant and the story of the man behind her.
Adam Cheyer '88, who spoke at Brandeis' COSI High Tech Alumni Leadership Conference on Nov. 2, developed the prototype for Siri almost 20 years ago. The concept came to him before he had ever seen a web browser or knew what a website was. Working at SRI International at the time, an independent nonprofit research institute, Cheyer "had a vision that the world would be composed of software services that in a system would interact to help manage doing things for you," he said in an interview with the Justice.
The one-day conference, organized by the Brandeis University Alumni Association and the Computer Science department, featured alumni panels as well as addresses from Walt Mossberg '69, personal technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal; and Mitchell Kertzman '70, founder of software developer Powersoft and a managing partner at Hummer Winblad, a technology-focused venture capital firm. The conference focused on progress and innovations in the computer science field, and named Cheyer the Brandeis Computer Science Entrepreneur of the Year 2012.
Despite his executive-level success, Cheyer never dreamed of having a personal assistant. "It's funny because I've always felt awkward asking someone to do something for me I could do myself." Cheyer admits he has few qualms about asking a computer, however. Influenced by the vision of Doug Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse, hypertext and networked computers, Cheyer hopes to utilize technology in order to help people work smarter and more efficiently to solve the world's problems. He cites this as a major theme in his career thus far.
In 2007, Cheyer signed on as technology director and cofounder of Change.org, the world's largest online petition platform to date. Today, the website has more than 20 million users and is growing by more than two million per month. While Cheyer stepped down from his positions in 2008 to launch Siri and another start-up he was working on, Genetic Finance, he still serves as an advisor for Change.org today.
Cheyer was hesitant to join Siri, Inc. at first, unlike his SRI colleague and eventual CEO of Siri, Inc. Dag Kittlaus. "I kept waiting for [the venture capitalists] to throw Dag out of the office once he got to the business idea and the business numbers." But to Cheyer's surprise, they never did. Once he knew there was business potential, he knew he could build the technology.
In February 2008, Siri, Inc. went public and the first version of voice-activated personal assistant was released in the Apple app store, one of 350,000 free applications. "When we started the company, I walked into an Apple store and on the wall there were all these icons of the big boys, the famous ones: Google, Pandora, Skype. I said, 'One day we're going to do this and Siri will be an icon right up there with the other 100 big icons on this app store wall.'" Little did Cheyer know that Siri would one day supercede the wall, appearing on a plasma front door display in every Apple store across the world.
A few weeks after Cheyer, Kittlaus and Tom Gruber launched Siri, Inc. in 2008, they received a call from the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs to discuss incorporating Siri software into Apple products. "If it's a feature hidden away then we're not interested," Cheyer recalls telling Jobs. "We want to change the world." If Jobs, which he did, saw Siri as an universal and integral component of interaction, "then that's very exciting for us," Cheyer remembered thinking.
In its most simple form, Siri was not meant to answer philosophical or promiscuous questions like "Who is God?" or "What are you wearing?," Cheyer explained. The technology serves as a "knowledge navigator," allowing people quick and easy access to travel, scheduling, weather and other applications and updates. When the software went public, however, Cheyer and his business colleagues soon realized that the "chatty personality" and "delight nuggets"-the fact that when it's raining outside Siri will tell you to pack your umbrella-are what make Siri simply irresistible.
While many in America consider Siri female, Cheyer insisted that Siri has no gender. In fact, he noted, the European version of Siri sounds more like a man. "If you ask her if she's a man or a woman she'll find ways to deflect that as she deflects ... other kinds of advances people might make." So does anyone really know Siri? "It reveals itself over time," Cheyer said, if you ask her questions about her favorite color, if she is an Apple employee, if she is human, etc. That said, Siri will always remain largely mysterious; it's part of her appeal. "It's the same way books are often better than the movies," Cheyer notes.
According to Business Insider reporter Dan Frommer, Siri, Inc. was sold to Apple in April 2010 for somewhere between $100 and $200 million. While Siri continued to be an application in the app store, the technology, fully integrated into the Apple experience, was not publicly revealed until the launch of Apple's iPhone 4S, a year and a half after Apple bought Siri, Inc. The release took place on Oct. 4, 2011. Jobs died the next day, Cheyer noted. "I have no idea what he thought, but I'd like to think that this was something he cared a lot about and had a lot of interaction with. I'd like to think that he saw it and said 'this is good;' Apple's in good hands going forward."
Cheyer left Apple this past June to spend more time with family and "give back," but he believes Siri is "absolutely just scratching the surface of what is possible." While his professional relationship with Siri has ended, he noted, "we all have our own relationships with Siri, as do I."
As for what's next for Cheyer, he is reexamining his "personal mission statements" and reflecting on his career so far. "I am a big believer in 'do more than you think you can,' which I learned at Brandeis," he said. "I learned if you set the stake in the ground and it looked impossible and you do your best, you accomplish often more than if you had set the stake much closer."
When it came to choosing colleges for Cheyer, Brandeis was his top pick because "the liberal arts education let me ... attack human intelligence from all sorts of angles," he said, citing how a computer science major at Brandeis receives a Bachelor of Arts, unlike at other schools where students receive a Bachelor of Science. While he graduated with highest honors in Computer Science, Cheyer believes that his ability to take a multi-disciplinary course load, "really gave me the breadth and passion to do [artificial intelligence] ... It really did shape what I did and how I think about the world."