Nick D’Aloisio stares out the window of a hired car at the glow of evening traffic. He has just waved good-bye to his entourage at Heathrow Airport and is en route home to London with the surreal events of the last week playing in his head: Meeting Ashton Kutcher in Los Angeles, walking into the minimalist studio of Apple’s head designer, Johnny Ive, sitting with mobile analyst Mary Meeker, then flying to Munich to speak at the Digital Life Design conference. Wearing bright-red jeans, purple sneakers and a blue checked hoodie, he chatted breezily onstage about the iPhone app he created on his bedroom computer.
Summly simplifies and boils down the content of Web pages—reference material, news items, Quora answers, you name it—to a few bullet points. In the audience was Arianna Huffington, who was so impressed she tweeted about him. “Oh, and he’s 16,” she added.
This was a popular addendum to the buzz around D’Aloisio, along with labels like “boy genius” and “wunderkind”. Sure, Mozart had already written eight operas by age 16, and Pascal had produced his first theorem. But neither of them ever managed to raise a round of funding from Horizons Ventures, the private investment vehicle of Hong Kong real estate billionaire Li Ka-shing—a backer of Facebook, Siri and Spotify—as D’Aloisio did late last year. Horizons has been showing off its latest star, flying him to Silicon Valley and trotting him around to meet key tech figures—with his mom in tow.
Where did this kid come from? Born in Australia, D’Aloisio started reading college textbooks about astronomy at age six and staring into the broad, star-filled sky Down Under. “There was no light pollution,” he recalls. He also studied Caterpillar trucks, then made 3-D animated films on the sophisticated movie software Maya and obsessed over model trains.
By age 12, when D’Aloisio moved to London with his father, a vice president at Morgan Stanley, and mother, a lawyer, he started conquering computers. When he discovered that anyone could develop an app for the iPhone, he learned programming by downloading Apple’s SDK (software development kit) and buying reference books from Amazon, then adapting what he learned to his own experiments.
In between classes and the occasional rugby game, he created an app called SongStumblr, which used Bluetooth to show users what people nearby were listening to. He taught himself the basics of artificial intelligence software and built an app called Facemood, which tells you the emotional state of your friends by monitoring their Facebook status. He never revealed his age online and after three years netted roughly $30,000 from one-off sales of his apps, about $1.50 each, after Apple’s 30 percent cut. By 15, he’d set up his own company; his mother signed all legal documents, since he was underage.
D’Aloisio never discussed his hobby with his classmates at Kings College, one of the UK’s top private schools and part of the elite Eton Group attended by Prince William. But school played a role in his next venture. Last year, while studying for a history exam, he grew frustrated with the flood of text from Google search results. Paradoxically trying to save time, he poured himself into writing a program to summarise content in an easily digestible preview.
He used his knack for languages—he was studying Latin, Mandarin and French—to create a program that could extract the most relevant sentences out of long text. Microsoft Word once had a summarising tool that ran on a “linear” algorithm that searched for the most frequent keywords sequentially.
D’Aloisio figured he could do better with a “genetic” algorithm that could be trained to choose important sentences as a human does, in any language. The program detects the topic of a text and on that basis applies particular metrics to determine, say, if numbers are more important than descriptive words, and extracts critical sentences accordingly.
Surely, this could be used for a lot more than just a personal study tool, D’Aloisio realised: A service for media companies, financial institutions, law firms or any organisation having to extract key points from scads of data. “We could train the algorithm to get good at summarising certain authors,” D’Aloisio says in between mouthfuls of cheeseburger at a trendy grill in Shoreditch, an up-and-coming neighborhood in London, full of artists and startups.
D’Aloisio spent last summer honing his knowledge of AI and writing code. He contacted a linguistics researcher at MIT’s Semantics Lab and paid him $250 to analyse the algorithm. Conclusion: Summly came out 40 percent closer to how people actually constructed summaries than competitors did—good enough for D’Aloisio to release a free app (then called Trimit), which ran on an iPhone and received regular updates as he refined it. A patent search revealed that, despite those for a half-dozen similar apps, none featured the trained, AI component or tie-in with the iPhone. He set up a website and a demo video on YouTube.