Shawn Carolan of Menlo Ventures, an investor in Siri Inc., prior to Apple acquiring the company, recently sat down on Bloomberg to discuss the technology. Apart from talking about the initial demo that attracted him to the investment and meeting Siri Co-Founder Norman Winarsky, Bloomberg host Cory Johnson pressed him on exactly how Siri is able to take voice-recognition data and determine intent.

Around the 3:20 mark, Carolan discussed Siri’s unique approach of taking all words as “one big block” and mapping “those strings of words across” a group of 10 domains of expertise. This approach sounds familiar to at least one technology journalist who claimed the method is similar to patents owned by search portal Excite in 1994. Robert Cringely explained:

Here’s how the ArchiText (later Excite) search engine worked. Every query was stripped to its significant words — subjects, objects, verbs and adjectives — then each query became a vector in a multidimensional space with each unique word being a dimension.  “How do space rockets stay in orbit when they are flying through space?” would become a vector string one unit long for each of those words but two units long for the word “space.”  This bit of semantic DNA was then mapped against an index of millions of web pages that had all been similarly converted to multidimensional vectors.  It was quick, scalable, concentrated the processing load on the indexing where it didn’t bog down retrieval, and could reliably return pages like “Why satellites fall from the sky” that might answer the question even though none of the same words were used.

Cringely, who has a less than perfect track record, said the approach “sounds darned similar” to Carolan’s description on Bloomberg and expects the old Excite patents to be changing hands soon as a valuable asset to compete with Siri. According to Cringely, the company’s creditors now own the Excite patents in question. Interestingly, the patent’s original inventor, Graham Spencer, now works as Engineering partner at Google Ventures following his role as Engineering director at Google. In March 2004, Excite was acquired by Ask Jeeves (now Ask.com).

We will have to wait and see if the patents end up providing value against Siri as competitors continue to emerge. If Cringely’s claims prove to be legitimate, there is of course always the possibility for Apple to acquire the patents  if they truly prove to cover vital aspects of Siri’s technology.

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