From the peHUB Archive: 5 Questions for Norman Winarsky on Siri and What’s Next from SRI

Photo by Jason Reed, Reuters
Photo by Jason Reed, Reuters

In honor of today’s release of the Apple iPhone 4S — which features a personal assistant named Siri — we’re re-running this post from former peHUB Editor Dan Primack about Apple’s acquisition of Siri. This story originally ran on April 29, 2010.

Apple yesterday acquired Siri, a virtual personal assistant for the iPhone. No financial terms were disclosed, but a source tells peHUB that it was in the ballpark of $200 million.

Siri was a VC-backed spinout of SRI International, a non-profit R&D lab whose past hits include Nuance Communications and Intuitive Surgical. The person in charge of the group’s ventures, licensing and strategic programs is Norman Winarsky (pictured below), who also sat on the board of Siri. So we’ve got five questions for him:

1. Siri was borne of the much-larger CALO project. What convinced you that this sliver was right for spinout and commercialization?

Our venture process innovates constantly not simple of technology, but on what are the disruptive technological solutions we can help provide. And, typical of any tech solution, you must have a market vertical that makes sense and where there is a terribly important need.

In the information technology space it was clear, even during CALO, that the concept of a virtual personal assistant was a great market opportunity. We originally wondered if we should go into the mobile phone or PC space, but we had one very telling offsite where we decided mobile because of the market pain. It’s so difficult to ask for Web services when on a phone – particularly if you’re in motion — whereas on a PC you can just type.

2. Let’s stipulate that the Siri sale to Apple was a “win” in financial terms. How does that affect SRI?

Well, we’re obviously very happy with the transaction. SRI is a nonprofit, so deals like this effectively help create an endowment. Over the past 14 years, we have produced 40 or more ventures with a total market value of over $15 billion.

The model has always been to work with top VCs here and around the world, to create new ventures and to further advance SRI. We like to think of ourselves as an innovation engine, whereas most academic institutions view education as their primary goal.

Most of the work we do is government funded – or “non-dilutive,” in your terminology. But, by virtue of it being government funding, it’s relatively small so government funding alone would not be self-sufficient. That’s one reason why we partner with VCs on new ventures.

3. Will we see other CALO-related spinouts coming soon out of SRI

Yes. You’ll see some coming within six months, although they’re still stealthy. There’s still so much left to do with the CALO mission itself, which is all around artificial intelligence and natural language dialog. Even SRI hasn’t yet captured the market, with Siri and other things we’re doing just being the tip of the iceberg. I believe this is the next great revolution in organizing health info, call centers and more.

4. Then why launch Siri the way you did, rather than wait and build it into something even more robust?

Because, in my opinion, the complete virtual personal assistant is still not capable of being implemented into all market-spaces in all dialogs. It’s still not able to reason and dialog on a diversity of subjects. Humans have a deep understanding of context, but the current technology does not. It’s both a constraint and opportunity for future robustness.

5. Will the technology eventually understand context?

Yes, I believe so – although can’t predict when. I can say that the perfect storm of technologies and algorithms are here, so we’re beginning to advance toward that stage.