Apple has a secret office in Cambridge where it’s working on Siri, the company’s AI-powered personal assistant, according to multiple sources.
Walking around Cambridge, you’ll be hard pushed to find many people outside the tech community who know that the world’s most valuable company is developing one of its most important products in their city.
But that’s exactly what Apple is doing in an unmarked office at 90 Hills Road, located approximately five minutes walk from the city’s train station.
Those working inside are aiming to make Siri talk more naturally, according to a source that knows a number of Apple’s Cambridge employees.
Two employees of a local company in an office less than 100 metres away had no idea that Apple had an office in Cambridge. However, an employee of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, which is located next to the building, confirmed that Apple is indeed the tenant.
Interestingly, the office doesn’t show up in the right place on Google Maps. It can, however, be found on Apple Maps.
Apple’s Cambridge office is home to less than 30 people, including many of the employees from VocalIQ — a voice recognition startup that was spun out from the university and acquired by Apple in 2015 for up to $100 million (£80 million) — according to a source that’s familiar with Apple’s operations in the city. Apple has a lot of room to hire more people at the office, the source added.
In terms of why Apple chose to locate itself at 90 Hills Road, the source said that the property market is “tight” in Cambridge so it was “one of limited choices.” They added that the office’s close proximity to the train station makes it “commutable” for those that live in London, which can be reached in less than an hour by train.
Apple’s only other known office in the UK is located just off Regent Street, in London. However, the company plans to move 1,400 employees into a new office in Battersea Power Station in 2021. Apple also employs over 5,000 people in Ireland, where its European headquarters are located.
Apple is competing with companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google when it comes to creating AI-powered personal assistants. Despite a number of impressive hires, including Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Russ Salakhutdinov, one of the world’s leading talents in AI, Apple has been falling behind in the global AI race, according to several reports, including this one from Bloomberg.
VocalIQ’s software — designed to help computers and people speak to each other in a more natural dialogue — hasn’t found its way into Siri yet, according to an artificial intelligence (AI) expert that Business Insider spoke to earlier this year with knowledge of voice recognition platforms. “I think it’s extremely unlikely that [VocalIQ] is in Siri now,” the source said. “In fact, I’m pretty sure it isn’t. But obviously Apple have got it for a reason.”
The source said they could tell that VocalIQ’s technology hadn’t been integrated into Siri just by talking to the personal assistant. VocalIQ has a “a very particular style of dialogue … and I haven’t seen that in Siri,” they said.
But one of VocalIQ’s early investors told Business Insider that it was “hard to tell” whether VocalIQ was in Siri or not. Earlier this year Steve Kovach reported:
“According to a source familiar with VocalIQ’s product, it’s much more robust and capable than Siri’s biggest competitors like Google Now, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. In fact, it was so impressive that Apple bought VocalIQ before the company could finish and release its smartphone app. After the acquisition, Apple kept most of the VocalIQ team and let them work out of their Cambridge office and integrate the product into Siri.”
He went on to write:
“It’s still unclear when Apple plans to implement more of VocalIQ’s capabilities into Siri. One source speculated that it may happen slowly over time, so as not to throw off users with a radical change. But it sounds like Apple is arming itself for a significant shift in how Siri works.”
Apple declined to comment.