Siri Co-Founder Dag Kittlaus on Engineering, Pizza, and His Time With Steve Jobs

Val Chulamorkodt

April 9, 2012 · 14 minutes read

Uncategorized

In response to hundreds of requests, pleas, and pings for more information on Dag Kittlaus’ keynote at Technori Pitch on March 27, 2012, we’re releasing a transcript of his talk.  Many thanks to our friends at RoboToaster for the audio feed!

If you weren’t there in person, get ready for a wild jaunt into Dag’s vision for the future, his words of advice, a look back at Siri’s acquisition by Apple and his time with Steve Jobs.

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Seth Kravitz: Many of you have been waiting very patiently for who we’re going to bring up next. I’m kind of curious, how many of you here have ever used Siri?  [Many hands in the air].  All right not surprisingly a lot of you have.  I’m very excited to have the opportunity to introduce Dag Kitllaus, Co-Founder of Siri.  He’s recently moved back from Chicago and is here tonight to share some of his insights.  Welcome, Dag!

Dag Kittlaus: How are you guys doing?  Well its good to be home, I have to say, it’s good to be back in Chicago.

I was going to talk a little bit about the future for a few minutes.  We’re going to have time for a lot of Siri stuff and I’m going to tell you a bit of the stories and so on, so we’ll leave a bit of time for Q&A.

But first I have a question, how many of you guys have heard of the law of accelerating returns? A few of you, I see.  It’s going to change the world and its really creeping up on us quickly.  It’s basically allowed us to hasten progress… information technology gets twice as powerful every year.  If I had to walk across this stage and take 30 steps, I’d get approximately to Seth.  But if I take 30 steps exponentially, which is what this law is about, I’d be on the moon.

There’s going to be some very strange things that are going to start happening as this law takes effect now.  Siri and being able to talk into your phone and other things are really just the beginning.

In 25 years, the hottest consumer product on earth is going to be a home printer.  It’s going to be a 3D printer, only, it’s not printing out paper. You’ll send somebody a note, and you’ll attach… a pizza.  And when you print it out, you’re going to be printing out the real thing… and it’s going to be hot… and it’s going to have just the right amount of spices on it. It’s going to give us exactly what you ordered.

They’re doing this today with organs for example. Human organs.  They’re already using technologies like this, in 3D printing, to take a DNA sample from somebody, plug it into a printer and have it print out an organ that’s based on your own DNA. There’s incredible stuff that’s coming.  In fact one of the implications of this and an easy way to think about it, is that over the next century, so the 2000s as opposed to the 1900s, instead of getting 100 years of progress like from the last century, you’re going to have the equivalent of 20,000 years of progress.

 

"... there’s a lot coming. Be prepared for the fact that life is going to change a lot in the next few decades." Photo credit, Tom Giles of StageBloc

So there’s going to be a lot of strange things that are going to be going on with us. Some people out there right now are saying “Dag, are you out of your mind?”  Am I even going to be alive to see anything like that in my life? Well there’s good news on that front too, because, in the same time frame, there’s a high likelihood that they’re actually going to cure death.  Every time your cells metabolize, there’s a chromosome that gets just a little bit shorter, and when it reproduces itself, it does a job that’s not quite as good as it did the last time, and that’s essentially what aging is.

So we don’t quite, at a certain period… you’re not quite as good as you used to be.  As an old man now myself, that’s an unsettling thought.  But, they’re starting to learn how to turn that off.

So imagine that, you’ve got a cut, you’re a kid…or my son skins his elbow, and a day and a half later I can’t even see it anymore.  So, what’s going on with that? It’s a very big idea, but essentially, they’re starting to understand how to stop that and potentially to reverse it.

And there’s an ongoing debate today… is the first person that’s going to be 500 years old, alive today, right now? So there’s incredible stuff going on.  When I look at artificial intelligence in just what’s gone on in the last 3 years, in that space, it is astounding.

So there’s a lot coming.  Be prepared for the fact that life is going to change a lot in the next few decades. Quite incredible.

In 2007, I went out west, actually I was working at Motorola and I was quite frustrated with some decisions that they were making over there at that time.  So I packed my bags and I went west and I was working with Stanford Research. And Stanford research is one of the top research organizations in the world, they have about 2000 R&D people.  And the stuff that’s going on in there is absolutely incredible.

In fact, one of the things that I looked at when I was thinking about what company to startup, I was running around to talk to a bunch of people to see what the technology would be, and one of them was DNA dating.  They had a bunch of work in this area and it sounds far fetched, but maybe a little bit premature for its time.  That was one of the companies that I was actually looking at.

It turned out that they had some incredible technology from a project called CALO which was right about 200 million dollars–the largest artificial intelligence project in the history of the US, funded by the US government, and basically funded by your tax dollars, so thank you very much, appreciate that!

And we have a technology that we could use to talk to a machine and be able to have it understand you.  Hollywood has been talking about this idea for years and years, there is movie after movie about it, I don’t know how many people know Space Odyssey: 2001 with HAL 9000, and there’s KITT the car, the computer from Star Trek; that was all very fascinating to me. Of course coming from my mobile background, I wondered how could we apply that?

In 2007, just to find and download a ringtone–now this is before iPhone (that’s what people used to do, they looked for new ring tones)–it took, on average something like 30 clicks to find it and to download it. We said, you know there’s going to be so many things you’re going to be able to do with your phone. Mind you, at the time this vision everyone has for the future of mobile… it just wasn’t happening yet.

And I said, look, it’s a lot easier just to ask for it than it is to try to find it. And once you start thinking about what that interaction does, the ability to talk to machines, and you guys are going to see this all over, it’s going to be very common to talk to all different kinds of machines as things progress now.

Different verticals are going to have this. Like healthcare, there’s a good chance you’re going to have a little piece of hardware that strap on and plug into your iPhone that’s going to take your diagnostics, it’s going to ask you a few questions and it’s going to say if you should or shouldn’t go to the doctor.  I just met with the head of cardiology at Stanford and we were talking about that.

There’s an incredible amount of things that are coming with this and Siri’s really just the beginning, even for Siri. What we’ve seen today is just really scratching the surface of what’s coming. In fact, one of the jokes that we had when we were putting together a road map (so each release you kind of name the software) one of the first things we called it was “periodically human”.  It’s kind of a tag line — “Siri, periodically human”.  And then a little bit later it gets a little bit better and becomes “practically human”.  And then the next one after that becomes “positively human.”  And the problem was that then after that it was “kill all humans”!

That was one way to look at it.  And of course there’s a lot of debate about when is that going to happen, they call that the singularity–when do machines get smarter than people? There’s a lot of far out stuff that I’ve talked about that’s really happening a lot quicker than we think. This curve is going up, the rate at which things are getting stranger and better and faster, is really going to start impacting us.

So, I know you’ve got questions, and in the forum here today we’ve got a lot of startups and a lot of people thinking about startups.  People ask me, what was it you think helped? What was behind Siri’s success?  When you get together a group, what are the things that matter?

Seth Kravitz and Dag Kittlaus with Lovendar, a Technori Pitch presenting startup.

And of course the first thing that I say is find a few people — first of all, the founders of any startup… you have to believe in those people. You’re going to spend years of your life locked up in a closed room — more time than with any other relationship that you have, in all likelihood.

You want people to have complementary skill sets.  When I met Adam Cheyer, who was a brilliant technology guy from SRI, who loved this big $200 million AI project, I said to him as we sat down at dinner, “who are the top 5 software people you’ve ever worked with in your entire life?”

He had a list. He knew exactly who these people were.  So we went and we made incredible plans for recruiting these people. Particularly with software, it’s different than some functions like sales — where you’ve got really good sales people who understand, and who are kicking ass.  If you have 2 of them, that’s great. But in the software world, a really really special software engineer can create 50 times, or 100 times.  So with software in particular, it matters to get the real rock stars out there.

The thing that I think worked with Siri was that the people that we put together had really complimentary skill sets.  I’m not a coder, even though I had a Commodore VIC-20 when I was in highschool.  I always joke to my young engineers that I’ve been coding since before they were born, which is true, I just haven’t coded since!

That really matters. Getting the right people in the room is the magic that matters.

You can go and get a company funded without even an idea. You can go to investors and say, we’ve got these three people — they’re on board. And they’ll say, “how much do you guys need?”  We’ll talk in the next meeting about what you guys are thinking about.  That really matters.

The other thing is, especially if you are in tech, and this isn’t necessarily relevant for a lot of the real time problems that people are trying to solve, but if you’re in tech, this Wayne Gretzky way of skating to where the puck’s going to be, that won’t matter.

It doesn’t matter what you’re doing today, if it’s really hard, the end result has to match from a timing perspective, with where the world is when it’s done.  That really matters.

Most technology companies fail because they lose time there.  It’s not that they didn’t get done with what they said they’d get done, it’s because what they did was irrelevant — there were some major pieces of a puzzle that just wasn’t there.

When Siri was acquired for example, and when we did the first presentations for investors, there was no speech involved.  I was doing this demo next to Google — it was all about doing versus searching.

I didn’t want to be just a little bit of a smarter search engine.  I wanted it to be a “do engine.” I wanted it to do something for me and I can just go in…. In all the demos we did, we just typed in next to a google box, and we showed them how bad Google was and how great we were.

The speech technology part came in about a year into it.  We knew we wanted to do it, but it just wasn’t good enough yet.  After you get to an accuracy of between 90-95%, it just feels good.  There’s a threshold there. It’s just good enough.  And Apple is very good at recognizing when things are good enough too.  That lesson was reiterated to me working with Steve Jobs.

That’s really important, that you really understand the direction and make sure that the timing and how all those other factors work are in place.

Q&A

Seth: Two questions in the same mentality –  Now that you’re back, why Chicago instead of SF? And can you address the Pando Daily article that came out?

Dag: Did it piss you off?  Good.  Wear that chip on your shoulder. Let it be heavy. The only way you’re going to disprove that is to go out there and make it happen.  There’s some great new startups… there’s Groupon and GrubHub and Threadless… I just got this new shirt from Trunk Club, so I’m supporting the ecosystem, but the only way to disprove all of those arguments is to go out and prove that wrong.

The reason I’m telling you all these fun stories about technology and where it’s going to be is because it’s been suggested to me that maybe Chicago should just… sort of do what Chicago does, but in the startup scene.

There’s some manufacturing, retail, and other strong industries as well as a lot of interesting ideas that… if Chicago doesn’t figure out how to plug in the engineering talent from the region, they’re going to get left behind. Because this technology is going to be more and more of a big piece of what’s going on in terms of all industries — like, medicine is an information technology now.

So, Chicago needs to realize to move on things that aren’t going on in public yet.  To address those issues.

Why Chicago? I’m back here because I love Chicago.  The plan was to go out west, hopefully make something there, and come back here.

I’m back and now the energy here in Chicago… when I left, there was nothing like this, there were no events like this, the energy of the startup community didn’t exist in 2007.  So, the fact that now that there’ve been some success stories here, obviously Groupon’s sort of a headliner in Chicago among others.  Groupon was started after Siri, and they’ve got 10,000 employees… I don’t even know how you do that!

The other part of my point is that Groupon has 200 people working on technology and they’re all in Palo Alto, California.  And they’re hiring 100 more in Palo Alto. That’s bad — that’s bad news.  It’s not just Groupon… Chicago needs to get their act together on that front.

So that’s basically why I’m back, and I love it, I’ve got family here, and I’m here for good.

Kittlaus advises Vikram Chandramouli, Chief Evangelist for Kula.

Seth: This one’s more pointed at the future of technology — this technology that you were talking about, is it just going to be for the most wealthy and most powerful? How is it going to help everyone? They asked if “Gattaca” is more and more likely.

Dag: So the haves and have nots. I think technology is more democratizing than anything. Of course access to it early on always goes to people that can afford it. I don’t have the answer to how we solve that problem. But the power of things are always when it gets economically feasible for a large number of people.

I didn’t want the hiring of an assistant to be in the purview of just the guy on the top floor. I want it to be free. We used to joke about having Siri advertising campaigns where the garbage man is throwing garbage in the back of his truck and he’s going “I have an assistant.” The boss walks up to his secretary and says “do this, and do this” and he walks away and says “Siri, do this, do this and do that.” So ultimately, I think the strength, the power of it, is when it reaches the masses. So I don’t see it as a big issue.

Seth: What’s your next project?

Dag: So I’m brainstorming it. I love technology and high tech obviously as you can tell, so I’m thinking about what comes next in the same way that I did — search was kind of the thing at the time.

I think that this notion of a virtual personal assistant with artificial intelligence is going to be a huge thing. I think our kids are going to look back at us and go, “you didn’t have an assistant?  Oh I’ve got one, but it sends emails to my friends and tells me jokes.” I truly believed that everyone will have an assistant.  There’s so many different areas that that’s going to be relevant in terms of verticals and industries that that’s going to disrupt.  I think that’s going to be way bigger than search ever was.  I’m thinking a lot about that in terms of where I spend my time next, but it’ll be something along those lines.

Seth: I think you touched on this earlier, but if you have an idea or vision that you want to bring to life but you can’t code it yourself, how do you get in the game?

Dag: You’ve got to hook up with a team of people that know how to build stuff, and the very best software engineers.  You have to have a vision and you have to inspire. People want to be inspired — that’s always step one.

The very best engineers, which is what you need to turn all these ideas into real products and real game changing scenarios. Which is why I think Chicago needs to get a pipeline of engineers.

This is one of my big causes here, is to champion engineering.  You’ve got University of Illinois, Northwestern’s got some, I think they need to beef that up.  But Illinois is world class, absolutely world class.

In fact one of the most incredible technological achievements in the world is happening in Champaign, Illinois. Has anyone heard of Wolfram Research? Wolfram Alpha?  What those guys are doing down there is just incredible. I think Siri is a pretty big deal, but I think Wolfram Alpha is an incredible deal too.

That’s right here.  There’s no reason that Chicago can’t become a Mecca for this.  We need to get the quantum entanglement between Champaign and Chicago established.

Seth: How did you pick the name Siri?

Dag: So Siri means in Norwegian–”beautiful woman who leads you to victory.”  I worked with a lady named Siri, I wanted to name my daughter Siri, and the domain was available.

It’s also very… obviously consumer companies need to focus on the fact that their name is easy to spell and easy to say.  And as some of my board members told me it doesn’t have any “inflectives”.  I had to look that up, what that meant. It means that there’s no staccato in the linguistics of saying it.  For all those reasons, that’s where we landed. And of course, I was lobbying Steve Jobs all the time, “that’s a great name!”  “No, well, we’re looking for something else….”

Seth: How did you first introduce that and sell it to Steve?

Dag: Well… I did nothing. Three weeks after launch, I got a call in my office from someone at Apple that said, Scott Forstall wants to talk to you and he’s the head software guy. I said sure and thought that was a good sign — that three weeks after launch Apple wanted to talk to us.

Only it wasn’t Scott that called, it was Steve.  Steve never announces where he’s going to be and what he’s going to do it because there’s too much commotion around him. So he said “Dag this is Steve Jobs” and I was like [utterly shocked face].

He wanted me to come over to his house the next day, and I did.  I spent three hours with him, in front of his fireplace, having this serious conversation about the future. We talked about why Apple was going to win, we talked about what Siri was doing — he was very interested in Siri in general. But they’re patient, he won’t jump on anything until they feel like they can really go after something, and he felt like we cracked it.  So that was his attraction.

So it ended up we were very lucky timing wise, and I got to work with him for a year and it was pretty incredible… pretty incredible… and the stories are true.  All of the stories.

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