Former students

The man behind Siri

He may have sold Siri to Apple for a reported $200 million in 2010, but Norwegian entrepreneur Dag Kittlaus is at it again. This time, he aims to unleash a new AI revolution.


Position: Vice President at Samsung and Cofounder of Viv and Siri

Things are moving very rapidly. But I’m definitely a technology optimist.

25 years or so, Dag Kittlaus – the son of a Norwegian mother, Liv, and a Chicagoan father – was serving beer at Lekter’n, the famously expensive outdoor pub and restaurant at Aker Brygge in Oslo, trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life.

He was living with his aunt and uncle in Norway. The young man had taken a year off from college, and was mulling over whether he should pursue a career in hotel management or not.

When he went back to the States, he decided not to. He applied for business school instead. BI, to be precise, in the country he had come to love.

It was the hardest academic year I’ve ever had,“ he says. “But it was great.”

He stayed on for several years, working for Telenor and eventually becoming the first head of the now defunct subsidiary company Djuice.

The real story starts later, in 2007, when Kittlaus and two colleagues, Adam Cheyer and Tom Gruber, had a brilliant idea.

“Interestingly, a lot of the inspiration for Siri came from the frustrations of trying to build good mobile services with all the limitations I had back when I was working at Telenor and Motorola,” he says.

“It turned out that Stanford, where I worked as an entrepreneur in residence, had some technology that they didn’t know what to do with. It was related to artificial intelligence and the ability to talk to machines and have them understand you. I put two and two together and said: wouldn’t it be great if you could just talk to your phone instead of all the typing and tapping on those small screens. You could use the phone as a kind of remote control for your life.”

Kittlaus, Cheyer and Gruber sold Siri to Apple for a reported $200 million in 2010. Kittlaus left Apple the following year, and he’s not altogether happy about what has happened – or rather, not happened – to his ‘killer app’ since then.

“I’m not happy with where it is today. Considering the lead we had when we launched it, they should be way ahead by now. They’ve done some things right. It’s faster, the speech recognition is better … But overall I’m a little disappointed that they haven’t maintained their lead.”

After leaving Apple, Kittlaus planned on laying low and finishing a novel. It was not to be.

“My retirement lasted about, oh, two months. You just get new ideas, you know? Any real entrepreneur can’t sit still for very long.”

The difference is the openness

“My colleagues and I decided that Siri was really only chapter one of a bigger, longer story. We asked ourselves what would it take to make the assistant as important as the browser was to the Internet and apps were to the mobile phone. Our conclusion was that we needed to open it up to other developers, almost like Wikipedia. Let it have thousands and thousands of capabilities, instead of a few dozen. That was what Viv was built to do.”

The main difference between Siri and Viv is the openness to third-party developers.

“Viv allows developers, individuals, services, companies or anyone else to build any kind of AI technology they want, and then insert it into a giant, global brain in the sky. You don’t need to be an AI expert to do this – it’s built so that any developer that knows how to use basic technologies, stu_ you would use to make a website, now have the ability to build very powerful artificial intelligence applications. Using Viv is almost like talking directly to the Internet, and you can use any device you like. That’s the world we see coming, and that’s what we’re building.”

Samsung bought Viv Labs for a reported $215 million last year. But Viv isn’t the only kid on this particular block.

“Google, Amazon – they’re all trying to do the same thing. Companies are putting billions of dollars into it. Everyone seems to agree on where we’re headed. Now it’s a race to build ecosystems that work.”

What, from a technological viewpoint, has been the biggest hurdles?
“Scaling it up and having it work seamlessly with all kinds of providers and services – that’s been the biggest challenge. I think a lot of other developers have issues, simply because they haven’t put enough time and effort into it yet. But at Viv we’ve been working on this challenge for over five years now. We’ve got a head start. We expect Viv to be on over a billion devices in a few years time.”

Reimagining the internet

Does Kittlaus ponder the ethical responsibilities and philosophical implications of unleashing a revolutionary AI technology like Viv?

“Yes. But I don’t look at Viv as some kind of future threat. It’s a network, sort of like a new Internet, consisting of services that already exist. It’s a reimagining of the Internet. Artificial intelligence and conversational interfaces will simply make the Internet more easy to use. I don’t perceive Viv as becoming so smart that it’ll threaten mankind [laughs]. But I’m sure that, at some point down the road, questions like that will become a real concern for other AI innovations.”

Kittlaus remains an optimist.

“It’s absolutely clear that technology has been the driver that in improving the standard of living all over the world during the last several decades. Any measure of progress will tell you that. Reduction of poverty, improvements in healthcare, increased life span – every one of those indexes are at an all-time high right now. The world is a better place to live now than it ever has been in the history of man, and it’s primarily because of technology. I do recognize the perils and dangers of a few of the more advanced things that are happening in AI. Things are moving very rapidly. But I’m definitely a technology optimist.”

Melkesjokolade for everyone

Asked about what his beloved Norway could do to foster technological innovation, Kittlaus gets excited to the point of light agitation:

“I think Norway has a unique opportunity to make a real dent in the future of the world. Norway basically won the lottery. Now how are you going to put those winnings to good use?”

He held a speech for Norwegian business and government leaders a few years back. It was called If I Was the King.

“The first thing I’d do would be to send everyone in the world a bar of Freia milk chocolate. And yes, I did the math – you can afford it,” he laughs.

But the gist of his message to Norway, was this: “You guys are sitting on so many resources and are doing so little with it. You could help create the future! You could take a quarter of your yearly earnings and make the big bets that no one else can afford to make. I’m talking about things like materials science and nanotechnology. Norway could cure cancer! You could create the greatest long-term technology centres in the world, and at the same time build Norway’s next economy.

And it wouldn’t affect the Norwegian culture of setting off for the cabin at four o’clock on Friday either. Nobody has to sacrifice anything!”

Kittlaus promises he’ll be back in Norway to talk some more in the near future. The entrepreneur survived a brush with death in 2016 – a tumour on his pancreas, the same type of cancer that killed Steve Jobs – and is eager to spend his time on this earth wisely.

“I should be dead, basically. My chance of survival was about 1.5%. But it looks like I dodged a bullet. I’m in great health now, stronger than I’ve ever been in my life. I get screened every four months. It looks really good.”

When is your book published?
“Well, it’s delayed – I got busy with starting another company! It’s still on my to-do list. I actively make notes. It’s sort of a ‘Siri gone wild’ story. I’ve mentioned it in a few articles and I’ve already gotten two movie offers.”