How the Pentagon Paid for Siri on Your iPhone

Top Secret iPhone

It’s easy to imagine that all these wonderful, cool, revolutionary or just plain handy gadgets were invented for us, the consumers of the world. That assumption couldn’t be further from the truth; the most great tech ideas are facilitated with military money, and it’s always been that way.

In fact, it’s not just any military; the vast majority of technical breakthroughs of the last 100 years have their origins in the well-funded American defence establishment.

For a high profile and recent example, we don’t have to look any further than the latest Apple gadget to invade our high streets.

If you recently bought an iPhone 4S, you’ve probably already come across the cool little voice-assistant program Apple refers to as Siri. Well, the concept and software code of Siri originated with DARPA, the Pentagon’s way-out, sci-fi inspiring, advanced technological research organisation.

A California company called SRI (yes, California again ;) was funded by DARPA to create a project they labelled CALO, which stands for cognitive agent that learns and organises. Basically, this was a military-funded artificial intelligence project that aimed to augment soldiers and hardware with ’intelligent’ computer chips capable of listening, learning and speaking.

Remember the character Rogue Trooper from the 1980’s comic 200AD, the blue-skinned genetic experiment with his dead squad buddies inhabiting chips inserted into his weapons and armour?

Well, SRA’s project didn’t end up bearing the desired fruit for the US military – or more likely, another parallel project got there first – and eventually Apple bought SRI to add their work to its formidable armoury of consumer-wooing technology.

Thankfully, most people won’t be using Siri on the iPhone 4S to help plan a complex response to a military threat – this latest incarnation of Rogue Trooper’s buddy is more likely to tell you where the nearest public convenience is than to locate the nearest nuclear silo.

Ironically though, Siri is in many ways much more powerful than DARPA or the military ever imagined. In fact the average smartphone owner has more personal computing power on their person than the average US soldier, and Siri’s ability to instantly retrieve information is way beyond the budget of America’s currently over-stretched military.

So enjoy that hardcore military technology in your pocket – and remember that the Pentagon paid a lot more for it than you.

Gez Hebburn Oct 2011

Gez was supposed to be writing about bathroom mirrors this morning until his fingers hurt, then writing about bathroom cabinets this afternoon until they fell off. Instead he wrote about Bert Jansch and the secret military technology that’s in your pocket. Ahh well…