Facebook Poaches Apple’s Head Of Siri Natural Language Understanding


Apple has lost one of its most senior Siri officials to Facebook. Rushin Shah, former head of Natural Language Understanding on the Siri team, has now moved on from Apple to work at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters. The change comes at a time when Siri is facing increased pressure from its competitors.

Shah announced the news in a post on his LinkedIn profile, spotted by VentureBeat. He is leaving the Siri team after five years. During his time with the product, Shah was instrumental in launching several of the digital assistant’s most important features.

These include the accurate voice recognition systems that Siri relies on to listen to the user. Shah was responsible for building the classification mechanisms used to enable casual conversation and “banter” between Siri and the user. As his former job title suggests, his main role involved giving Siri the ability to interpret a user’s intention from naturally spoken sentences.

Image of the new Siri watch face for the Apple Watch, announced at WWDC 2017
[Image by Apple]Featured image credit: Apple

Shah is now moving on to work on natural language and dialogue understanding at Facebook. He hasn’t detailed what his new role will entail, but it sounds similar to his position at Apple.

Facebook’s digital assistant technology is less developed than Apple’s, and the company doesn’t have its own voice-activated AI. It’s possible Shah will be responsible for developing a new rival to Siri, perhaps acting as an extension to Facebook’s existing “M” assistant inside Messenger.

Writing on LinkedIn, Shah cited a desire to try “a new challenge” as his only reason for leaving Apple. He said he’s “excited” to join Facebook and work on “a variety of products” with user counts in excess of one billion individuals each day. He has already left his post at Apple, entering Facebook’s offices at Menlo Park for the first time today.

Photo of Apple announcing the Siri-powered HomePod speaker onstage at WWDC 2017
[Image by Apple]Featured image credit: Apple

It isn’t known who will take over Shah’s former role at Apple. His departure comes at a critical time for Siri as the assistant faces increased competition from rival assistants. The company’s AI is widely perceived to be less accomplished than the likes of Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant. Apple has refocused its Siri development over the past couple of years, adding new features in iOS updates and bringing Siri to the desktop on Mac PCs.

At WWDC earlier this month, Apple announced its debut smart speaker which is built around Siri. It’s the first time the company’s technology has been combined with “far-field” voice recognition, the system which lets HomePod recognize your voice from across a room. The launch marks the expansion of Apple’s ambitions for Siri and demonstrates its renewed rivalry with Alexa and Google Assistant.

The departure of Shah, a longstanding member of the team, could have implications for Siri’s future. Robust natural language understanding is vital to the success of a voice-activated assistant, something Shah has enabled over the past five years. Apple will presumably appoint another well-established member of the team to take over his role, ensuring Siri remains at the forefront of AI voice tech going forwards.

[Featured Image by Apple]