The Huffington Post has a long and detailed article on how Siri came to be. It all started in 2003, when DARPA awarded a 150M$ contract to build a virtual assistant that learned from watching people work. The program was called CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes), was led by the R&D non-profit SRI International, and was the largest artificial intelligence undertaking in history. An engineer named Adam Cheyer was responsible for integrating the work done by the 27 teams on the gigantic project, and he also spent half his time working on another virtual assistant made by a parallel project called Vanguard. A general manager at Motorola named Dag Kittlaus saw the prototype of the Vanguard assistant, fell in love, quit Motorola, and took a job at SRI in 2007.
The original Siri app
Soon after, in early 2008, Kittlaus and Cheyer along with another guy named Gruber got 8.5M$ in investor funding for a startup which would merge the best parts of the CALO and Vanguard projects. They left SRI — which licensed the necessary technology to them in exchange for a stake in the new venture — and started a company called Siri. In early 2010, they released the first Siri app for the iPhone which, by all accounts, was much more powerful than the current Siri which is embedded in the iPhone. The original, standalone Siri was much more intuitive and much more connected to the web: it was much better at inferring meaning from sentences, and could access and consume data from a lot more web services.
A few weeks after the app was released, Steve Jobs called Kittlaus and bought the startup. Interestingly, part of the buyout deal cancelled another deal Siri already had pending with Verizon, which would have made it a default app on all Verizon Droid phones. In other words, Siri almost became a Google Android staple, rather than an integrated part of the iPhone. Verizon even had commercials made.
As it turned out, Siri became a lot dumber once this integration was complete, for a few reasons: first, Apple is a global company and the original Siri could really only support American English, so it had to be retooled to be an international app. Second, deals with partner web services became a lot more difficult with the biggest company on Earth — compared to a small startup — so Siri became less connected. Third, one could originally talk or type to Siri, but the typing option was taken away by Apple, for unknown reasons. Fourth, her snarky personality was changed, to accommodate the much larger user base that iPhones have.
Still, Apple keeps improving the feature, despite that only one of the three co-founders of Siri still works at the company, and the fact that two of its main champions, Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall (the creator of iOS), are also no longer there. A Fortune magazine test showed that from iOS 5 to 6, Siri’s correct answer rate increased from 68% to 77% — from a D to a C — which, as bad as that sounds, is still slightly better than Google Now.
From The Huffington Post and Fortune, via iMore