Siri and the Emergence of the Virtual Personal Assistant

Computing pioneers Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider, and Doug Engelbart envisioned computers as a way to extend the human mind’s capabilities. Their ideas proposed that by delegating a portion of our tasks to computing systems, we could more effectively manage the increasing complexity of our lives.

In 1997, I attended a brilliant presentation by wearable computing pioneer Dr. Thad Starner that made me aware of how this vision would be realized.  At the time, Thad wore a PC/104 based computer equipped with a “Private Eye” head worn display, a twiddler chorded keyboard, and a CDPD wireless internet connection. With a series of demonstrations, he illustrated the concept of contextually aware computing in which knowledge of location, time, and past user behaviors can be leveraged to better assist a person in completing their tasks. The idea is that through contextual information and a growing body of knowledge of a user’s habits, a computer interface can evolve to fit the user as opposed to the user having to adapt to a static interface. Over time, he described how such an interface could learn enough about an individual to become a “digital doppelganger” which could independently handle a number of one’s routine responsibilities. As an example, he described a scenario in which the time of year is December, and your wearable computer uses its knowledge of your gift buying habits to act on your behalf to complete all of your Christmas shopping for you.

Millions of us now carry contextually aware computing devices in the form of smartphones. Consequently, these devices are a mass market platform for advancing the notion of the digital doppelganger, now commonly referred to as a virtual personal assistant (VPA). Last fall, Clark Dodsworth, pointed me to a new mobile application called Siri which I see as the next step in VPA development. Siri is notable in that it uses a conversational interface that accepts either typed or spoken word input. It goes beyond traditional speech to text systems in that it can utilize natural language processing techniques to derive a person’s intent. Context from location, time, and user history is used to select from a variety of web based services capable of carrying out the requested task. For instance, if I say “I am hungry,” the system first determines that I am looking for restaurants. Next, using the phone’s geo-location capabilities, it determines that I am in Santa Monica, California, and then lists restaurants within walking distance along with details provided from a variety of web services.

This short video of demonstrates Siri’s current features.

Two decades ago, Apple produced a now famous video called “Knowledge Navigator” which depicted a future virtual personal assistant system. In this keynote from the Semantic Technology Conference, Tom Gruber introduces Siri and compares its features to the ideas presented in the Knowledge Navigator video.

It should be noted that beyond making existing information services easier to use, virtual personal assistants like Siri will also play an important role in winning over late adopters who have not been fully utilizing online search and recommendation tools.

Siri is without a doubt a major step in the fulfillment of a vision for computing set forth decades ago, and I look forward to seeing additional innovative VPA systems in the coming years.


  1. Jarrell Pair says:

    Follow up: Apple buys Siri, see the Techcrunch coverage here

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