Microsoft buys speech recognition company that helped power Siri

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Apple’s AI-driven voice-controlled digital assistant Siri
Nuance tech helped give rise to tools like Siri.
Image: Apple

Microsoft has acquired Nuance Communications, the speech recognition AI company which helped* power Siri.

Microsoft snapped up Nuance for a massive $16 billion ($19.7 billion, inclusive of Nuance’s net debt). That’s the most it has spent on a company since buying LinkedIn for $26 billion in 2016.

Nuance is used for a range of applications. One of the big ones singled out in Microsoft’s press reliance is providing “conversational AI and cloud-based ambient clinical intelligence for healthcare providers.” The company’s tech is currently used in 77% of United States hospitals.

“Nuance provides the AI layer at the healthcare point of delivery and is a pioneer in the real-world application of enterprise AI,” said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, in a statement. “AI is technology’s most important priority, and healthcare is its most urgent application. Together, with our partner ecosystem, we will put advanced AI solutions into the hands of professionals everywhere to drive better decision-making and create more meaningful connections, as we accelerate growth of Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare and Nuance.”

Nuance CEO Mark Benjamin will remain at the head of the company. He will report to Microsoft’s cloud and AI boss Scott Guthrie.

Does Apple still rely on this tech?

*Apple isn’t mentioned in the Microsoft press release. That, to me, suggests that there is no ongoing relationship between the two companies. From the moment Apple debuted Siri in 2011, it was unclear whether it relied on Nuance tech. It certainly did back in the days when Siri was still a standalone app, prior to its acquisition by Apple. As with many companies it does business with, Apple seemingly has various confidentiality agreements in place regarding whatever ongoing (or one-off) deal it may or may not have with Apple.

But there’s no doubt that Siri has a lot to credit Nuance for. As Nuance’s Distinguished Scientist Ron Kaplan told me for my book Thinking Machines, “[Our technology’s] job is to figure out the logical assertions inherent in the question that is being asked, or the command that is being given. From that you then have to be able to interpret and turn it into an executable command. If the question is ‘Can I get a dinner reservation at 12 o’clock,’ it’s not enough simply to understand it. You have to be able to do something with that information.”

Do you know any more about this relationship? Let us know in the comments below.

Source: Microsoft