Winarsky Talks About Siri

Oct 18, 2011
Originally published on October 18, 2011 3:33 pm
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Look around you at your early adopter friends this week and you may well see them deep in conversation with their phones. Not on their phones, but with their phones. The newest offering from Apple, the iPhone 4S, has all the things one now expects of a cell phone, a nice camera, a big bright screen. But according to many tech enthusiasts, the game changer in this phone is a voice and some would say something close to a personality. It's called Siri. It was developed at SRI International, which was originally the Stanford Research Institute.

And joining us now to talk about Siri is Norman Winarsky who's the vice president of ventures at SRI International. Welcome to the program.

NORMAN WINARSKY: Thank you so much, Robert.

SIEGEL: I want you to explain what Siri is. It's not exactly a speech recognition program. It's something more than that.

WINARSKY: No, it's much more than that. So, Siri does recognize speech, namely take your spoken words and put that into textual form. But that's really only the beginning - in truth, not the breakthrough. The greatest breakthrough was to recognize the intent of the sentence.

So you could be saying: I'd like a top-rated hotel in San Francisco for tomorrow night, with a pool and a fitness center. And it understands and recognizes that.

SIEGEL: It does?

WINARSKY: That's real artificial intelligence being applied.

SIEGEL: Well, I happen to have a friend's new iPhone here. So, since you said that I'm going to say: I'd like a top-rated hotel in San Francisco for tomorrow night, with a pool and a fitness center.

SIRI: Robert, I can't search near businesses. My apologies.

SIEGEL: Well, I have to try again. Maybe it didn't understand my diction.

WINARSKY: Try it again. It should work.

SIEGEL: I want a hotel room in San Francisco tomorrow night at a top-rated hotel with a swimming pool and a fitness center.

SIRI: I found a number of hotels that have swimming pools and have fitness centers. Sixteen of them are in San Francisco, California. I've sorted them by rating.

SIEGEL: And there they are. I think even on the second try, awfully impressive.

WINARSKY: And that's what makes Siri a game changer.

SIEGEL: Now, somewhere in Siri's genealogy here, there is DARPA. This is an outgrowth of something that the Defense Department was once doing?

WINARSKY: Right. Right. So let me explain. DARPA created a program called CALO, the cognitive assistants that learns and organizes. And this is a large program, perhaps the largest in the history of DARPA for an AI program.

SIEGEL: An artificial intelligence program?

WINARSKY: Artificial intelligence program and what was unique about the program was what they called learning in the wild. They were inspired by "MASH." Do you remember "MASH"?

SIEGEL: You mean on television? Yeah.

WINARSKY: On television. Do you remember Radar O'Reilly in "MASH"?

SIEGEL: Of course.

WINARSKY: Well, Radar O'Reilly always knew what the captain wanted before the captain knew what the captain wanted. That was the inspiration for CALO. We wanted to assist people in their everyday life. We wanted to provide them a virtual personal assistant that could help them in their meetings, help them with what they want to accomplish, help them look forward in making their reservations. This was inspired originally by that, in fact.

SIEGEL: So you think that if I had a virtual personal assistant for a few years, that my virtual personal assistant - by virtue of what it knows and what questions of mine it's familiar with - would be significantly different from my friend's virtual personal assistant who has another iPhone, and uses the same program?

WINARSKY: So there is that capacity that was always in the original vision of Siri that it can be personalized to you and learn from you and your preferences and your favorites. And, yes, it does have some of that now, but you can be absolutely sure that it will continue to do that in the future.

SIEGEL: Well, Norman Winarsky, thank you very much for talking with us about Siri.

WINARSKY: Thank you so much, Robert.

SIEGEL: Siri is, as we just heard, the virtual personal assistant that's available on the new iPhone. And Norman Winarsky is vice president for ventures at SRI International, the company where Siri was developed.



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