Dag Kittlaus & David Eun on Open AI
At Samsung NEXT’s AI Summit @DLD Tel Aviv Innovation Festival 2017, Siri and Viv Labs co-founder Dag Kittlaus discussed how his company is taking a more open approach to building and deploying artificial intelligence. In conversation with Samsung NEXT president David Eun, Kittlaus talked about the future of AI and how Viv Labs is making it more accessible to other companies.
David Eun: Thank you very much for coming. We’re so pleased to see such a large group. As they all said, my name is David Eun. I’m the president of Samsung Next. It’s an organization that I founded about, I guess it’s almost six years now in 2012 and very simply, we are a group that’s exclusively focused on startups. We are looking to identify and create and invest in breakout software and services to complement so much of the hardware that Samsung is already known for.
When we talk about building, growing, and scaling, how I often describe it to entrepreneurs is that we will meet you wherever you are, meaning if you have a concept or an idea, we can help turn it into a product. If you have a product, we can help turn it into a company and if you have a company, we can help you scale it globally. We really think very hard about how we can do this. It happens primarily through three different avenues. One is that we do our own product development internally. Another is that we invest quite frequently through our venture group, and we are active acquirers of companies all over the world, which is something that’s been newer particularly in software and services for Samsung but something that you’ll be hearing a lot about.
On the acquisitions front, one company that received quite a lot of attention in Silicon Valley and around the world is a company called Viv Labs founded by this gentleman here, Dag Kittlaus and Viv Labs, the team at Viv Labs was the original Siri team. In Dag, we have someone who started a company that was acquired by Apple and Samsung which will make for some interesting conversations, I’m sure. Without further ado, let’s get into the conversation. Dag, thank you for coming all the way here to join us in our one year anniversary celebration.
Dag Kittlaus: I’ll follow you anywhere, David. Thank you.
David Eun: We have a large group of folks who are entrepreneurs, investors and people who have been following the space. AI is the buzzword. Everyone’s talking about AI. They’re inserting AI on this. Startups that had not been AI are now marketing themselves as AI startups. What’s going on? What is AI? How should we think about what AI means?
Dag Kittlaus: Well, there seems to be a growing number of definitions for what AI is but classically, the definition of AI is machines that exhibit intelligent behaviors or machines that can accomplish things that previously, only humans could, so landing planes, driving cars, being able to talk to humans, and so on and so forth. Classically, that’s the definition but there’s lots of new areas, machine learning is going into all different types of areas, also considered AI. There really isn’t one definition but I would say the proliferation of these technologies are going to be disrupting all sorts of industries.
David Eun: Before we do a deep dive into those interesting areas of disruption, maybe we could take a step back a little bit. As I said in my intro, you have this unique distinction of having created two startups. Each of which have been acquired by rather large companies that people have heard of. Let’s talk about why AI and how did you get started in AI as an entrepreneur.
Dag Kittlaus: I worked in Motorola in the early 2000s and one of the projects that we worked on was with a company called SRI which is Stanford Research. We had several projects going with them and I ended up deciding to leave Motorola and it just happened to be the day that the CEO of Stanford Research was there. He said, “Why don’t you come on out and become an entrepreneur and a residence at SRI?” which I ended up doing in 2007 and looked at a bunch of technologies that they had but my background is in mobile internet. I’ve been working from the very beginning of the mobile internet before they even had color displays on phones. We were trying to do premium SMS services in Scandinavia which was really fun so I knew mobile.
Back even before the iPhone sort of really kicked off smartphones in a big way, we were we were looking at how to simplify the interactions with devices and just sort of take it from where it was only about calling people to doing all the things that they do now. We said, “Man, if you could just ask your phone to do things for you, that was sort of the big moment because it’s a remote control for your life. It’s with you all the time. That would be great.”
It just so happened that my co-founder Adam Cheyer at SRI was one of the leaders in AI and had been working on this technology for decades. He had a platform that had research foundations from a big DARPA project, a few hundred million dollars that have been invested by the government. It was getting close to being good enough to commercialize and I said, “The iPhone had just come out,” I said, “Let’s go all in on getting people to use their phone as a remote control through conversation to do whatever they want to do in their life.” That was sort of the foundation for the idea. We built a bunch of prototypes based on that technology and hit Sand Hill Road back in 2007 and spun it out.
David Eun: Is the two of you, you and Adam…
Dag Kittlaus: Yeah. Adam and I and another guy who came in a little bit later, Tom Gruber, co-founded it and then…
David Eun: …and you raised venture money.
Dag Kittlaus: We raised venture money and we started in late 2007. At that time, it was still the AI winter. I don’t know how many of you follow sort of the history of AI but there was this real enthusiasm about it decades ago and it ended up being overhyped. There really wasn’t a lot of true progress. A lot of people had lost faith and thought that was really just a hype cycle.
I think Siri was one of the first companies that brought it back to the fore especially when Steve Jobs called and wanted to make it one of the big parts of Apple’s future. That clearly was a platform for getting this out into the world. I credit them for taking this idea and this notion and really getting it out and making it a worldwide thing. I think that since then, within a few years of that, suddenly, there was this massive influx of AI interest and commercialization around some of the research. It’s been a quite a ride.
David Eun: When you were forming the company and you were just beginning to get momentum, you’d raise some capital, what were your goals internally? I mean, there’s a lot of entrepreneurs here, as I said. Was it to get acquired? Was it to go public? Was it to create a certain type of product? I mean, how did you guys think about your own evolution as a company? What was important to you?
Dag Kittlaus: No. It was never to get acquired. We really just had a vision of taking what we were doing. Like any entrepreneur, you want to take your baby, the idea and the passion that you’ve put into it and you want it to go huge. I had just done a deal with Verizon in the U.S., one of the biggest mobile distribution deals I think ever signed at that time. We had this distribution in place and we were getting ready to go.
Then, Steve called and that changed the conversation a bit but actually, that was quite a negotiation we had. He called me like 40 days in a row and we didn’t want to sell because we wanted to bring this into a billion dollar company but in the end, he convinced us that the risks were obviously high and all that but they could really take this thing and give it a platform which is obviously where that ended up.
David Eun: He unfortunately passed away and you all decided to move on. Let’s talk again for, to the audience, so you’ve done a start-up, it’s gotten acquired, what made you go back and do another startup? I mean, what were your other choices and why a startup again?
Dag Kittlaus: I think, the driving decision for us, a few of us that after we left Apple, we basically decided that there was unfinished business here. When Steve died, Apple kind of … we didn’t feel that they had the same vision that we had agreed on with Steve. We asked ourselves, “What would it take to take this to the next level?” When I say the next level, I mean you’ve got the Internet and basically every 10 years, there’s a new paradigm that comes along starting with web browsers. Every company in the world had needed to make a website. Then, the mobile revolution came with apps.
We basically just took everything we knew and threw it aside and said, “What is it going to take to take this idea and make it the next great paradigm?” The answer that we came up with eventually is that we need to open this up. Many of you don’t remember this but the iPhone came out in 2007 and there was no such thing as the App Store for the first year. It was about 10 months after that. The first phone launched with about nine Apple-made apps only but then the App Store happened and that changed the world.
We think that that is an opportunity, an AI now where you can create almost a Wikipedia of AI where anyone in the world can teach this AI system new capabilities, scale it beyond in the same way that app stores have proliferated. That’s too much wine last night. We think that that’s the next great thing, is the ability to let the world teach an AI system and create it in an exponential set of new capabilities which makes it become a much greater and more important part of people’s lives. We’re just having one company, have a road map and build some apps, let the world teach it and that’s what Viv’s technology has been all about. We’ve been building that for five years now.
David Eun: Viv is more of an enabler for other AI companies and not an AI apps company, per se, or an AI service to …
David Eun: That’s a big vision. It’s an extension of so much of what you and your co-founders had done before. Then, along comes us and Samsung. Why agree to be acquired again? It didn’t work out quite like you wanted it to. As you said, you felt like you had some unfinished business. Why not just continue as an independent startup? Maybe many of you in the audience are in startups now and you’ve been approached by other companies who want to acquire you. What were some of the things that you were thinking of? Then, maybe we can take it into AI specific things but I just feel like a lot of people probably puzzled by what was your rationale to do that.
Dag Kittlaus: It’s a crystal clear rationale for us. It’s a different market now than it was in 2007. Every major top tech company in the world is now putting billions of dollars in this exact idea. We feel like we can finish the job with Samsung. By that, I mean, okay, we’ve got a technology now that’s ready to go and there’s no other company that has the breadth and depth of products out there to make these incredible … You hear about IoT, you hear about personal assistants and where that’s going to go.
When this opportunity came along, we had the discussions. We laughed about the fact … I mean, Tim is standing over in the corner. We were showing each other our own presentations about the future of where we thought this was. You could basically have taken the Samsung logo off and put the Viv logo on their presentation and take ours off and theirs on. Basically, we saw the future the same way. The scope of what Samsung brings in terms of all the different devices and we don’t have to be … I’m not going to keep plugging Samsung all day here but that was clearly the driver for us. That is taking this idea and getting it out there first on Samsung and then also on other devices. This is a platform like a few others.
David Eun: It’s not just mobile, for mobile devices only, in your mind. It’s not arguably even just for Samsung, conceptually, devices. It’s bigger than that. Let’s talk about AI. What are some iconic services or use cases that you all think of? I mean, there’s so much discussion, so much press about personal assistants or digital assistants. How important is that to you all and how do you think about that?
Dag Kittlaus: Well, so, today’s market for the digital assistant world or personal virtual assistant or whatever you call it, to me is just chapter one of a much bigger, longer, more important story. We think that when you have enough momentum and enough different capabilities, and people are going to personalize these, right? It’s not going to be one-size-fits-all. Every person out there, in the same way that if you look at everyone’s phone, everyone’s got sort of the same apps, some of the big ones, but if you start swiping through and looking at the other pages, everybody’s phone is a little different and what they want their phone to do for them is different.
Well, that is the vision that we have for AI and assistants, is that every assistant will be yours. It’ll know you, you’ll be able to take, as a starter, say, any Samsung product that you would buy out of the box, plug it in, authenticate yourself either through your voice or through your thumb or whatever, and it says, “Hey, David. I’ve just downloaded your preferences. Do you have any questions how to use me?” Really, you’re creating and simplifying the way that you interact with pretty much anything, any kind of device.
I mean, the use cases, you can just go on and on about but, yeah, I mean, that is the vision. It becomes one of the primary ways to interact with everything. We actually … When I did the pitch deck, one of the big ideas was that in the same way that you see Bluetooth icon or a WiFi icon, everyone knows what that means. We had this, an iconic V that we said whenever people see this V on any device, they know they can talk to it and it will know them. That’s really the five-year vision for that.
David Eun: On Viv’s side, you all are trying to create the tools to enable this. If you were an entrepreneur on the other side and you were interested in AI, what are some of the things that you might think about building? Where would you be focused?
Dag Kittlaus: There isn’t really a single answer to that because there’s so many different areas in the verticals. I mean, so I’ve met with the head of cardiology at Stanford and he wants to build an app that helps instead of prescribing a medication after a surgery, they want to prescribe an app or some kind of assistant that essentially you speak with on a daily basis and it will ask you if you’re doing all the things you need to be doing post-surgery. They want to prevent re-admittance which is a huge problem in the medical industry as people after surgery aren’t really doing all the things that they’re supposed to be doing to take care of themselves and they ended up getting readmitted which is a hugely expensive thing in health care.
That’s just one example but you can go across any industry and say there’s lots of examples for how this simplifies interactions with between people and services and companies in any kind of way, especially commerce. I think commerce is going to be big.
David Eun: Is this all voice-driven? Let’s talk about that, right? People are used to swiping or pressing virtual keyboards on devices. As you think about other types of devices, how important is voice and what are the opportunities because a voice as a medium or as a gateway?
Dag Kittlaus: Well, so I think voice will be the primary just because it’s such a natural way for us to interact but certainly, you’ll be doing image recognition and other things that will be a part of the mix depending on devices knowing proximity to each other so that when you’re saying turn off the lights and ordering your house around basically, there’s other things that have to be in place to do that but I think voice will be the primary interface for this sort of simplification factor. Then, touch screens and everything else, that’s already there.
There’s essentially three. There’s screens that you don’t touch, there’s like TVs generally or screens that you do like phones, and then there’s completely voice only which essentially has no screen. Those are the, basically, the three modes that assistants will be designed around.
David Eun: So many entrepreneurs and investors set up this North Star and this dream of getting to a point where they can get acquired and in some respects, getting acquired is just the beginning of a new chapter. You described the five-year journey. Where are you now in that five-year journey and what are some of the sort of challenges that are unique given where you are now versus when you were an entrepreneur on your own as a startup? Is it significantly different?
Dag Kittlaus: Well, you mean, how you work within?
David Eun: That’s right. How you think about product, how you work with your teams.
Dag Kittlaus: You really want me to answer that question?
David Eun: Absolutely.
Dag Kittlaus: Yeah. It’s very different. The startup thing obviously is about … there’s some similar. It’s just for me, especially in software, the startup world depends on getting the right team together from the very beginning. I think I was telling you last night that we started Viv in like September of 2012 and by Christmas of 2012, I had gotten the six people that I knew I needed and I went into like the holiday season with a huge smile on my face because, especially in AI and things where very specialized knowledge matters, if you get the right team in place, the war is over before it begins.
The other thing that matters in this longer term plan, and I’ll tell you about Siri, you hear the words pivoting or startups said that the model doesn’t work right the first time around and they have to sort of totally start over. We didn’t change one thing about the vision we had for Siri or for Viv in the least from the beginning. We really had a passionate vision that we are going after and there literally was no change from beginning to end. Honestly, I think that it’s important to have the right goal that’s big enough and hard enough that’s going to take years to get to, that other people don’t think is possible and just sticking with it until you prove them all wrong.
Once you do that, all of the interest, people will start coming to you. You just have to prove it. The five-year thing is a myriad of experiences. Then, of course, going from the startup into the big company, you spend more time on the politics at least as a CEO. What you try to do is keep the team heads down and keep them out of that side of it. Then, you’re in a world of scale. That’s the biggest transition that both the Apple acquisition had. I think we took 18 months from the time that we were acquired at Apple to launch Siri and spent a lot of money but I think that was a successful outcome.
Then, right now, we’re about 10, 11 months in with Samsung. Plus, you’ll be seeing some cool stuff in the next, say, six to 12 months coming out of us but yeah, it’s a different world. Startups is all about inspiring people, getting the team together, heads down, keep the goal in mind, you have to attract partners. I mean, inspiration is at the core of any startup, if you ask me, because without a compelling vision, you’re not going to get the best people in the world that want to join you on that mission, you’re not going to get investors that are going to want to be a part of it, you’re not going to get the partners that you want. Inspiring to me is the key in the startup world. Then, even when you get into bigger companies after an acquisition, you need to inspire the company to follow along and to follow through with the vision that you had originally.
David Eun: You’re talking about as an entrepreneur inspiring the big company. I think a lot of times, people think the big company is supposed to inspire the startups to get involved with some pre-existing vision or plan. How much give and take is there in your experience? Do you feel like you’ve had influence on the overall direction of a company as large as Samsung?
Dag Kittlaus: It’s not easy. I can say that there’s real challenges with a company of this scale. I don’t think there’s any companies with a bigger scale but Samsung is a company that has divisions that don’t even know what each other are doing and you’re trying to bring all of these divisions together into a common vision. To my knowledge, that’s never happened before yet but I think we’re making great strides. I think you might find that Viv and Bixby will be that catalyst that actually is one of the first truly across Samsung product and product.
David Eun: You described a little bit about just buying a Samsung product and then having it recognize who you are. Can you describe a little bit more about in your head if X years down the road, how will you know you will have achieved your vision. Can you describe a little bit more about what that experience might be like for some of us if we buy Samsung TV or a smartphone or appliance or whatever it is?
Dag Kittlaus: Achieving the vision for me isn’t about a particular device. It’s about the role that an assistant plays in your life. For us, it’s always looking out ahead. We think that, yes, people use search engines, people, you know, websites. It’s when it’s truly the assistant is your very personal right-hand man that you just use 10 times a day at least that we feel that our vision is becoming close to being fulfilled, where it really is a part of your life.
It’s not just a novelty, right? Today, you’ve got some usefulness in all the products across all the companies but I don’t know how many people would say, “I can’t do without this,” right? I mean, in an era where I think my kids would ask me, “How did you get along without having one of these,” is sort of the ultimate goal in the vision. I think that’s absolutely going to happen. I don’t think that there’s going to be 10,000 assistants out there. I think this will be similar to search in a way that there will be only a few winners. I think that there’s a window out there to go and grab that. I’m happy to do that and we can … I think we’re going to take some questions at some point and if anybody wants to debate that with me, I’d be happy to.
David Eun: Why don’t we, before we go into questions, and we want to open it up to you all, take a little bit of a departure, maybe unexpected? I’m going to bring this up because you posted about this but so many of us were so busy and we’re working and we’re thinking about the 10, 15 things that we need to do and we didn’t quite get to yesterday or the week before, et cetera. We’re on this treadmill and kind of living off the adrenaline and the excitement of being in these new areas, but every once in a while, life throws you curveballs. You were public with this but not too long after the acquisition, a huge, successful life and professional event. Can you share with us a little bit about what happened because I want to tie it into what it is to be an entrepreneur and how you are leading your life? You had a health issue come up.
Dag Kittlaus: Yeah. About three weeks after the deal closed with Samsung, my wife had sort of just signed me up for an executive health exam because I just hadn’t been in doctor in a while, just totally precautionary. I had no symptoms of anything and it turned out that when the doctor called me the next day, he said, “You’re in excellent condition.” I just done four straight triathlons and had feeling great. “You’re perfectly healthy except for that large lemon-sized tumor on your pancreas,” which was a shock to say the least. The real irony was that it was the exact same cancer that killed Steve Jobs.
I watched, I worked with him and met with him every week and watched him wither away which was very hard to see and then found out that I had the same exact thing. Fortunately, I had surgery literally the next day. Steve waited 10 months because he wanted to try all these alternative therapies. I think that that ended up killing him, waiting, because it spread and so on but I got very lucky that they just went in and they took it out and it hadn’t spread and I’m 100% back. There’s no sign of it and it probably never will be again. I really lucked out. I had about a 2% chance of living.
All of this happened in a week from the first time that I went to the doctor, to them, the next day, telling me, “You’ve got a very small chance of living.” There was probably a 72-hour period where I didn’t know, yeah, we were talking about our Spring Break plans with the kids, I didn’t know if I was going to be alive. That’s a hard thing to do. The message that I would give on that, which I’m sure we can follow up on, is live everyday guys, because tomorrow is promised to no one. Live your passions and do grab your best bottle of wine off the top every day which is what I do because you don’t know when your…
David Eun: … or two bottles of wine.
Dag Kittlaus: … or two. Yeah. That was a crazy time. Unbelievable. It’s almost feels like a dream to me but I got lucky.
David Eun: Well, I bring that up because so often, we talk about the ups and downs of being in technology and being entrepreneurs and you literally had the highest of the high in getting acquired, you’re seeing a professional goal and the lowest of the low, 2% chance of survival and then, you’re back high again because you’re here. How does that change the way you approach your work? I’m sure people have asked you, “Why are you working? Why aren’t you just drinking wine all day,” right?
Dag Kittlaus: Well, first of all, in terms of how it affects my working, I’m a much more of a pain in the ass than I used to be because I don’t really care about the politics aspect of it. I care about advancing the vision and the dream and I don’t have a lot of patience for people who will try to use political whatever to get in the way. I’m a more of a loose cannon and I’m sure you’ll probably hear more about that, David, as we go, but you focus on the things that matter. Yeah, you spend time with the people that matter. That shrinks a little bit and I think as when you’re younger, you kind of want to be involved in everything but as you get older, you really want to spend time doing the things that matter to you and with the people that matter to you. That’s sort of the lesson that I learned.
David Eun: Well, we’re so pleased that you chose to spend time with us so thank you for coming.