Today in Apple history: Siri debuts on iPhone 4s


Siri had first been predicted by Apple back in the late 1980s.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

October 4: Today in Apple history: Siri debuts on iPhone 4s October 4, 2011: With the unveiling of the new iPhone 4s, Apple introduces the world to Siri.

A groundbreaking example of AI in action, Siri’s debut is the culmination of a long-term dream at Apple. The accomplishment was first predicted in the 1980s, and fulfilled almost down to the exact month.

Siri is an AI dream from the 1980s

Siri was one of the last projects Steve Jobs was heavily involved with at Apple as his health worsened. However, the intelligent voice assistant’s origins trace back to a 1980s Apple R&D initiative that took place after Jobs left the company.

In the late-1980s, Apple CEO John Sculley commissioned Star Wars director George Lucas to create a concept video for what he called the “Knowledge Navigator.”

The video, set with remarkable prescience in September 2011, lays out a series of possible uses for a smart assistant. In one, a university professor uses an iPad-like device featuring an on-screen AI assistant, depicted as a bowtie-wearing butler.

“Today you have a faculty lunch at 12 o’clock; you need to take Cathy to the airport by 2 p.m.; you have a lecture at 4.15 p.m. on deforestation in the Amazon rainforest,” the prototype Siri tells the professor.

DARPA’s AI assistant

At the time, the technology was nowhere near ready for prime-time. It would stay that way until 2003, when U.S. military think tank The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency began working on an AI assistant project. DARPA dreamed of a smart system that would help military commanders deal with the overwhelming amount of data they received on a daily basis.

To bring this system to life, DARPA approached SRI International about creating a five-year, 500-person investigation. At the time, it was the largest AI project in history.

DARPA called its project CALO (short for Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes). The name was inspired by the Latin word calonis, meaning “soldier’s servant.”

‘Your grip feels weak’

After a half-decade of research, SRI International decided to spin off a startup called “Siri” (a phonetic version of the company’s name). Siri launched in the App Store in early 2010, connected to a variety of web services. It could order taxis through TaxiMagic and pull concert data from StubHub, movie reviews from Rotten Tomatoes or restaurant data from Yelp.

It was also amusingly potty-mouthed, with liberal use of the “F bomb” and a range of sarcastic responses. Ask it for the nearest gym, for example, and Siri would quip, “Yeah, your grip feels weak.”

Apple acquires Siri

Apple acquired Siri in April 2010 for an amount reported to be in the vicinity of $200 million. The company immediately started working out how to bake Siri into the iPhone, although Jobs got hands-on about making the AI assistant user-friendly.

In some cases this meant new abilities, such as spoken-word responses (which the original Siri app did not have). Siri also could pull data from other Apple apps.

In other cases, it meant dumbing down the service, as seen by the inability to remove written requests from the user in favor of voice control only.

Apple considered Siri’s debut on the iPhone 4s a big deal. Siri’s ability to field natural-language questions like “What is the weather today?” or “Find me a great Greek restaurant in Palo Alto” with accurate spoken responses was way ahead of what other companies like Google offered at the time.

It was the last behind-closed-doors product demo Jobs had at Apple before stepping down as CEO. He tried to confuse Siri by asking “Are you a man or a woman?” and reportedly was delighted by its answer, “I have not been assigned a gender, sir.”

Apple’s next big thing

Today, deep-learning technology and other innovations make Siri far more accurate and functional than the version that shipped with the iPhone 4s. Siri’s arrival on the iPad, Mac and other Apple devices shows how much emphasis Apple places on AI.

Siri has become less of a gimmick in the process. The primary form factor for these assistants has also moved from our phones to smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Apple HomePod.

Do you use Siri today? How do you think it stacks up against rival services from companies like Google and Microsoft? Leave your comments below.