SRI International began as Stanford Research Institute in 1946 and became a problem-solving pioneer in communications, robotics, personal computing, and more. The leader of SRI’s Ventures, Licensing, and Strategic Programs, Norman Winarsky describes the ingredients of a great venture, and the Valley’s embrace of risk-taking and failure. Winarsky walks us through Siri, the “virtual personal assistant” smart-phone application that enhances human ability.
A production of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center. Hosted by Matt Ringelstetter. Written by Matt Ringelstetter and Amanda Murray. Art Molella, executive producer. Amanda Murray, podcast program manager. Joyce Bedi, webmaster. Norman Winarsky was interviewed on May 3, 2010, by Matt Ringelstetter. Podcast released June 17, 2010. Music is “ickmansworth” by Vim from FreeMusicArchive.org
Tell us what you think! Take our podcast survey.
Matt Ringelstetter: Chances are you’re probably listening to me right now on your computer or digital device. And unless you’ve somehow managed to find this recording on a cassette tape and popped it into your trusty Walkman, your listening requires some sort of human–computer interaction. It’s this idea of computer–human interaction that we’re going to explore today in this episode of Inventive Voices, as we speak with Norman Winarsky from SRI International, or Stanford Research Institute. SRI has been at the heart of Silicon Valley’s development as a place of invention since the very start. In fact, some of the fundamental concepts of how we even use computers today come from SRI and the people that have worked there. Norman is going to talk about SRI’s role as an innovator in Silicon Valley, the ideas of human–computer interaction that developed there, and how the products and ideas that they have worked on have shaped the ways in which we use computers. We’ll even hear about SRI’s latest innovation, Siri, an application for mobile devices that will be your new digital, personal assistant.
Matt: So first of all, Norman, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to be with us today. For our listeners that might not be familiar with SRI International and the work that you do over there, could you just describe how the organization got its start?
Norman Winarsky: Sure. SRI was founded by Stanford University in 1946. Its original intention was actually to create a commercial base in the Bay Area. Stanford University wanted its researchers and professors to be able to do contracts of various types, and created a mission for us to make a difference in this world and a mission in helping in the health and peace and prosperity of mankind. We work in virtually all the high-tech areas you could imagine. We have five divisions. One division is related to computer science, particularly with speech and AI [artificial intelligence] and software and cyber security. One division works on physical sciences, and there you’d think of energy and clean tech and battery power and wave power and wind power and the like. One division is educational and helps us do research and understand how to make an impact on education and how great education takes place. One division is the engineering systems division, where we work often on government programs and often develop opportunities in products or services to the point at which they can be deployed into the real world. And then finally we have a bio division, where we principally do drug discovery. SRI can and does work on what we call the world’s most important problems, and can do that because, not only because its our mission; we have researchers in each area who are specifically here and working to create these kind of opportunities and work on these problems.
Matt: Now the history of Silicon Valley is one of collaboration, and groups of brilliant minds and hard-working people working in numerous industries, and even launching industries themselves. How do you see the work of SRI fitting into this legacy?
Norman: Well, I believe that SRI has an esteemed part of this history. We have, since 1946, been part of creating many different industries. Let me give you some examples. Back in the days of Doug Engelbart, for example, in 1968 Doug invented the mouse at SRI. He also gave in 1968 what was called “the mother of all demos.” This was a demo to a computer science forum where he gave a bring-it-to-life demonstration of concepts like windows, hypertext, the mouse, graphical user interfaces, and more. So that’s one example.
But other examples of history, you know those little numbers on the bottom of checks that you write? That was a Bank of America project where SRI was helping determine how the banks can better manage checks, and that was the approach. SRI was also working in helping build and deliver to the postal service the way it can identify your handwriting on packages. So there’s many industries SRI’s been part of.
So we’ve, with our subsidiary Sarnoff, helped invent HD TV not too long ago. And Sarnoff also helped invent liquid-crystal display technology, and also even color TV when it was part of RCA. So I’d say that at SRI, there’s literally not a day that goes by that you would not be touching something that was being invented by SRI. And by the way, the internet itself. As we said, SRI was the first company to receive [funding] from UCLA in helping design and develop the internet.
Matt: Wow, there from the start, huh?
Norman: Right, right.
Matt: Now you mentioned Doug Engelbart, and I would say a key legacy of SRI is probably his work there in the ’60s, and you mentioned the mouse, and what did you call it, “the mother of all …”?
Norman: If you look up on the web, “the mother of all demos.”
Matt: “The mother of all demos,” right.
Norman: “The mother of all demos,” that was the Doug Engelbart demo. And that basically helped predict the future of where we see computers and computer science today.
Matt: And he was involved a lot, and his ideas centered around human–computer interaction and what it can do for the creation of knowledge and just life in general. Can you talk a little bit about his ideas and the way that we use computers today, and the tools that are being created by SRI and other companies?
Norman: Absolutely. So first of all, in the tradition of Doug Engelbart, the whole concept, the meta concept associated to Doug Engelbart and to all of his lifelong work, was augmenting human ability. Now Doug’s original concepts to augment human ability began with ideas which began with his own work in the military when he was looking at radar. He was looking at these radar screens and saying, “I can understand what’s out there in the world by representing these concepts differently. What is the equivalent in the world of information? How do people interact and see?” And that’s when he began to develop the mouse and the graphical user interface and the pointing capabilities. So Doug believed in augmenting human ability by direct interaction with devices.
And he also believed in collaboration, so many of the collaboration tools that you see today have their roots in people’s ability to simultaneously work together. His whole theme of his life—and by the way Doug is still here at SRI, here running his own company called the Bootstrap Institute [Doug Engelbart Institute]. But Doug’s whole theme has been not only augmenting humans and helping them collaborate, but helping them solve important and complex problems. And that’s becoming more and more critical as we, as our society grows and as our complexity grows. No one human is able to understand all the information that’s coming to him, and needs an assistant, and needs the ability to be augmented. That kind of augmentation is what Doug’s lifelong task was to focus on. Now he worked directly on issues like how do multiple people collaborate together and helping each other as I said, through collaboration, but what SRI has done in that tradition, it wasn’t originally part of his original concept, was to add that kind of collaboration capability from artificial intelligence tools such as from Siri, as we see today.
Matt: Okay, so you just mentioned Siri, which is probably a good way to segue into talking about some of that current work over there. For those of us that don’t know, Siri is an application for mobile devices, and it’s been advertised as a virtual personal assistant, correct?
Norman: That’s correct.
Matt: How would you place Siri within SRI’s legacy of innovations?
Norman: Sure, that’s a great question. So in our legacy of innovations, SRI, first of all in terms of technologies, as we just pointed out earlier in our conversation, has been on the vanguard of every major computer and computer science revolution that’s occurred over the last several years. From the mouse to the internet to wireless broadcasting and beyond. What SRI saw in Siri, before we knew it was Siri, was that it wanted to be on the vanguard of the next great revolution that we saw was occurring, which was in the mobile phone and the associated networks. The intelligent mobile phone. And it was clear I think to most people in the world, that the mobile phone was moving towards not just being a phone, but being your personal device, with you all the time, part of your experience, a mobile phone that now was more powerful than the first computers that came out back many years ago.
So here we have a new type of computer that is going to become your personal assistant, going to be with you, going to help you in your everyday life, and that was our vision. So we created what was called the Vanguard Program back in 2003. And with that Vanguard Program we began to define what we thought were the applications that we thought that your personal assistant, your phone, would want to have to be with you all the time and to assist you. So that was the business concept that began helping us explore, with all the carriers and all the cell phone companies and the like, what we could do to be on this vanguard.
Now the roots of this in technology were far deeper. So the roots of Siri and technology go way back. I mean SRI’s heritage again in artificial intelligence has been from Doug Engelbart up through to the work with Shakey the Robot, and now through to building systems that perform natural language understanding, systems that can have artificial intelligence reasoning and decision-making. As part of that heritage we’ve also started, in the past, Nuance, for example. Speech recognition.
So there’s a great deal of AI for reasoning and understanding that has occurred in SRI’s past. I’d say there was a defining moment for Siri back in 1993, around that time, when Adam Shire was doing what was called delegated agent technology: software agents that work for you and assist you. That was first demonstrated here. Then there was a project called Open Agent Architecture, where agents were again part of our theme where we were trying to establish in the world an underlying base technology that all could use, everyone in the world could use to help advance agents. And then most, probably, importantly in helping conceive of and define and develop Siri was the CALO program. CALO itself is called CALO because the letters stand for “Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes.” So your assistant. So think of that again as helping us create the concept of Siri.
So this assistant was first motivated by movies like M*A*S*H, for example, is a good example. It was first motivated by Radar O’Reilly. You ever see that movie M*A*S*H?
Matt: I have seen that.
Norman: Where Radar always knew what the captain wanted just before the captain knew what the captain wanted? That was the concept: How do you have an assistant with you that carries and supports you, and provides what you need even before you ask for it? The program was about $150 to $200 million, depending on how you count, over about five years. SRI was the prime. There was about twenty-four subs, including the who’s-who of the artificial intelligence world, like MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and Berkeley, and many others, and it was arguably, I believe, I think we can say, the largest artificial intelligence program in the history of the United States.
And that program led to great success, but beyond that, SRI began to conceive of its own application, which turned into what we now call Siri, an application that has natural language understanding, so you can speak to it, or you can type and it will understand your intent. It’ll reason about your intent. So in the case of Siri, its application is in travel and entertainment, so it’ll understand what services you’re calling upon. And then based on the services you call upon, Siri will decide whether you have incomplete information and ask for more, or conflicting information and try to resolve it, or ambiguous information. Then it will provide an answer to you. So instead of being a search engine, Siri will be a do engine. It will accomplish tasks for you.
Matt: Now moving a little bit to Silicon Valley, in general, the place that is out there, here at the Lemelson Center, we’ve been focusing a lot on how places factor into the inventive process and innovation. Now places, be they geographical or simply just a workspace, like a shop or something. Is there anything unique about SRI’s work environment and its physical spaces that you think adds to these creative and innovative processes that go on there?
Norman: Oh, absolutely. That’s a great question, Matt, because the location of SRI and Silicon Valley has been fundamental to our success and commercialization, particularly with Siri. In order to create a venture, you have to, there are three things. Every great venture has three things that you need in order to create it. First and foremost is, that every venture capitalist will tell you, is great people. So entrepreneurs and team members and the like. Secondly, you need a great market opportunity, and third you need a differentiated technology. Those are the three things.
Where we live in Silicon Valley offers a uniquely capable and valuable opportunity to have those things. So, for example, Siri’s CEO is Dag Kittlaus. That CEO was recruited by us as part of our EIR program here in Silicon Valley. So we have an entrepreneur-in-residence program that recruits people here and around the world into the program. Dag was attracted by our location and by that fact that we’re near all the venture capitalists and the like. Adam Cheyer, who was here at SRI and left to join Siri, and Tom Gruber, also a founder, came from Stanford. So you have great people in the area. That’s the first thing. Well, we bring them into the area because they’re attracted there.
Second point is the venture capitalists help you. If venture capitalists like Gary Morgenthaler of Morgenthaler Ventures and Shawn Carolan of Menlo Ventures see a great company here, they are more than venture capitalists. Venture capital money is relatively easy to get when you have a great opportunity. What’s hard is to get great people that roll up their sleeves and heavy-lift with you. And true venture capitalists are not just sources of money, they’re people that make introductions, help you recruit team members. They help you build strategy and business plans and the like. So the venture community here is also absolutely critical in your success. Much more than money, which can flow from anywhere to anywhere, but the actual venture community.
Also the community around us, including financial community, legal community, human resources community. All of those are attuned, exquisitely attuned, to helping you. And in fact, most people could start a company here effectively with zero dollars while everyone comes together to form this company and take their roles. Now once you have the concept and technology developed, which didn’t occur with zero dollars, but I’m just saying, the actual venture formation can occur almost at no cost. It’s so exquisitely attuned to creating this value. Legal companies will offer at virtually no cost their support to create the company. Because they want to be part of the ongoing support. Same thing with financial and the like.
So what have we talked about in terms of the convergence of people? You can get people here, you have venture community, you have all the other industries around us, you have great research around us, and you have people that understand how to negotiate the intellectual property. You have standard terms. People don’t have to make up terms so much as to what are the deal terms. Everybody knows it and respects each other.
And then finally, the last is for me a remarkable statement that doesn’t carry around the world too easily, which is, somehow here people are constantly doing their best to help you create your venture. So at no cost and with a lot of energy sometimes, people will introduce you to the right people, help you recruit the right people, help you establish your ideas, and they’ll do it to help you, knowing that you may help them. So it’s not a matter of money transacting, it’s a matter of helping each other.
Matt: It sounds like a situation that a lot of cities and areas would love to re-create.
Norman: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And in fact there are many cities around the world that would love to create their own Silicon Valley. It’s very difficult to do, because you need this convergence of money and resources, technology, and I guess also, from your point of view of innovation and the Lemelson Center, I have to say, it’s also a culture of innovation. I’ve gone around the world seeing if we can establish an SRI in Europe or elsewhere for innovation, as a center of innovation and not to try and reproduce our idea to institutions but to create a center of innovation that makes a difference and an impact by creating ventures and licenses there. And not yet successful in Europe, for example. And the reason is, first of all, that we would like a culture where people can take a risk and become innovators, and if that isn’t successful, then they will take that risk again.
Often, in other cultures, that risk-taking is frowned upon. And failure is a lifelong career event. That’s not true in Silicon Valley. If you have people here who have been CEOs and helped form a company and then were let go at the A round, they’d go back and try to be the CEO of the next company, and you know what, people would do it. So firing is not even a concept that we use. It’s really, people understand that they have great roles in what they do, and when the time comes that other people would be better to do what they’re doing, they go back and they succeed and do it again somewhere else.
Matt: Okay. Thank you so much.
Norman: Yep, thank you. Have a great day.
Matt: You too, take care.
Matt: That was Norman Winarsky, from SRI International. To learn more about them, visit their website at SRI.com. And to view “the mother of all demos,” simply do a search on YouTube for it, or search for Doug Engelbart. For the Lemelson Center and the Inventive Voices podcast series, this is Matt Ringelstetter. If you’d like to leave feedback about this podcast, or any in the series, you can do so on our website, invention.si.edu/video, on our iTunes channel, where you can also subscribe to the podcast, or email us directly, firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening, and be sure to join us again next month as we explore more people and places in the world of innovation and invention.