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2 October, 2015 - 10:57 By Tony Quested

Apple has acquired VocalIQ in Cambridge

VocalIQ CEO Blaise Thomson

Cambridge speech technology business VocalIQ has been acquired by Apple for a sum between $50-$100 million.

VocalIQ, a speech-related artificial intelligence specialist, says its technology is critical to the delivery of the Internet of Things.

It recently opened a satellite office in San Francisco to support its Silicon Valley and North American clients and is preparing for a public technology launch in the current quarter. Apple has just taken leases on new space in San Francisco and Cambridge.

No comment was available from either VocalIQ or Apple at the time of writing.

As exclusively reported by Business Weekly last year, Apple has taken space and has now fitted out office and R & D accommodation at 90 Hills Road in the UK’s science & technology capital.

That space may well have been tailor-made for an expanding VocalIQ/Apple venture.

A source told Business Weekly: “The Hills Road building appears to be half occupied but all the windows except for the top two storeys have been frosted over so no-one can see in or out. There is no signage.”

VocalIQ until recently had its home at Mount Pleasant House, headquarters to investor Amadeus Capital Partners, but has since moved out to destination unknown.

The company was poised to sign up for space at the Westbrook Centre but suddenly pulled out three weeks ago.

No figures have been confirmed for the deal.

The spoken dialogue technology being developed by VocalIQ spun out from the University of Cambridge’s Dialogue Systems Group spearheaded by serial Dontrepreneur Steve Young.

It was designed to enhance automated voice recognition interfaces, which rely heavily on predefined commands. Industry observers have been calling for Apple's Siri software to be updated.

The software, based on more than 10 years of research, offers users the ability to talk more naturally with their smart devices. Instead of merely recognising speech, the technology is able to understand and interpret dialogue.

Cambridge entrepreneur and investor and co-founder of Acorn, Hermann Hauser, has been a director of VocalIQ for 15 months. Blaise Thomson is CEO of the business which is chaired by Professor Young.

When VocalIQ raised £750k last summer, Dr Hauser said: “A wonderful advance in a very important area of technology which has a ready-made global customer base. They are a world leading team in dialogue management and have technology which will improve man machine interactions substantially.”

VocalIQ’s technology can also learn online so that when it makes mistakes, it learns from them and avoids making the same mistake again. The more the software is used the smarter it gets.

So, rather than merely digesting the user’s order to “find a restaurant,” the software learns to understand the nuances of a more natural conversation.

A typical exchange could sound something like this, as a user tells his mobile: “I don’t care where we eat but I need to find a nice restaurant for my girlfriend.”  The software might then respond: “There’s a really nice place to eat, it has good reviews, and it’s a 10 minute walk from your location. Are you OK with that?”

Blaise Thomson (pictured above), CEO and co-founder of VocalIQ, who is an expert in machine learning and dialogue system design, said: “There are no commands for the user to learn. It’s about having a conversation.”

The applications for the new software are many, ranging from video gaming to wearables such as smart watches and glasses. VocalIQ is currently working on a prototype application for one of the world’s largest car manufacturers.

“There were a billion smart devices made last year,” said Thomson, noting that most of them are neither easy to use nor safe when a user is on the move. Each year in the United States, driver distraction (calls, texting, and emails, among the factors) contributes to 16 per cent of all fatal crashes, leading to around 5,000 deaths, according to the AAA Foundation.

“For all of the many devices we use, we want to find a way to get what we need, in the easiest, safest way possible,” Thomson said. “That’s where voice comes in.”

VocalIQ received £750k in seed financing in June 2014 led by Dr Hauser’s VC vehicle, Amadeus Capital Partners. Cambridge Enterprise, the commercialisation arm of the University of Cambridge, also invested.

VocalIQ chair Steve Young is Professor of Information Engineering at the University of Cambridge. He was the original developer of the HTK speech recognition toolkit and co-founder of Entropic, an innovator in speech technologies, which was acquired by Microsoft.

“The use of speech to interact with machines has reached a tipping point,” Prof Young said recently. “Without smart conversational interfaces which can adapt to suit the user, the Internet of Things cannot flourish. VocalIQ intends to be the prime supplier of these smart conversational interfaces.”

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