The recent release of the Apple iPhone 4S was met with some disappointment because it wasn’t the iPhone 5.
Curiously, people seemed to be most disappointed that the shape of the phone hadn’t changed. What seemed to go completely unnoticed was a new feature that promises not only to revolutionise the way we interact with mobile phones but also with computers, tablets and potentially all other smart electronic devices.
The feature has also introduced a new word to our vocabulary: Siri.
Q: Siri, what are you? A: I live to serve.
Siri needs to be used to be believed, and also to begin to understand why this has been described as a revolutionary change. It is easy to dismiss Siri as voice control for the iPhone. Most smart phones have had a voice control feature where using a number of preconfigured voice commands, you can ask the phone to dial a number.
But Siri is more than that. It is, in essence, a piece of software with voice recognition and sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities.
Voice recognition translates your spoken commands into text. The AI then uses a combination of techniques that include natural language processing to interpret the text and propose a spoken answer. A lot of the processing gets done on the phone but Siri also communicates with a server and a number of services such as Bing, Google, Wolfram Alpha and Yelp.
Q: Siri, what can you do? A: I’ll show you…
You can ask Siri to do most routine phone functions. Send a text, email or place a call, for example. You can create appointments and set an alarm. This would be clever enough, but Siri understands enough for the requests to be quite sophisticated.
For example, at the “Let’s Talk iPhone" event, Siri was asked three different questions about the weather:
1) “What is the weather like today?” (Siri answered: “Here’s the forecast for today”),
2) “What is the hourly forecast?” (Siri answered: “Here is the weather for today”), and
3) “Do I need an raincoat today?” (Siri answered: “It sure looks like rain today”).
The point here is not just the accuracy of the voice recognition, but also the accuracy of the meaning analysis.
Actions that would normally take a number of clicks, interactions with applications and typing can be done with a single command, and they can be done hands-free.
Communicating with Siri is not simply a process of command and response, though. Siri understands that a series of commands are related, and understands the context. It learns from each interaction. This makes more complex operations possible.
For example, you can ask Siri to read a recently arrived text message that asks for an appointment. You can then ask Siri to check if you are free at a particular time and then ask to create an appointment and send a reply. All without touching your phone.
Q: Siri, where did you come from? A: I was designed by Apple in California
Actually Siri, that’s not quite true. Apple bought the company that invented Siri in 2010. Siri was a spin-off company from SRI International’s Artificial Intelligence Center which originated from a five-year project called CALO. The original aim of CALO was to create a personal assistant that could be used by the military (CALO was based on the Latin word “calonis” which means “soldier’s servant”).
Before Apple bought Siri (the company), Siri (the app) had been launched on the iPhone 3GS. The intention was to take the application to other phone platforms. But once it bought the technology, Apple integrated it seamlessly into the iPhone to transform something originally novel and useful into world-changing technology.
Q: Siri, what are you? A: I’m your virtual assistant.
It is fair to say the original iPhone redefined our relationship with the phone. It allowed us to do many of the things that could previously only have been done on a PC.
It even made some of these things enjoyable. So much so that people have formed a symbiotic relationship with their phone.
The advent of technology such as Siri takes the relationship between people and their mobile computing device to a new level that is not simply anthropomorphising an inanimate object.
More directly, it is replacing typing and touch with a more natural type of interaction. As companies like Microsoft scramble to bring touch to all platforms such as the desktop PC with Windows 8, the world has changed and technology will move to “conversational control”.
It is easy to ascribe something more to the AI capabilities when in response to questions like “What do you look like?“ Siri answers, “In the cloud, no one cares what you look like.”
The developers obviously had a lot of fun developing answers to questions like the meaning of life (“42”) and the famous quote from 2001, A Space Odyssey: “Open the pod bay doors” (“I’m sorry David, I’m afraid I can’t do that. Are you happy now?”).
Q: Siri, what does the future hold? A: I can’t answer that. But I could search the web for it, if you like.
The immediate question about Siri is whether the technology will appear on the iPad and then on the Mac. Technically, there is no reason for this but, as with all things Apple, the process will be controlled. When it happens, it will work and will not leave users frustrated through unmet expectations.
In the meantime, we are witnessing another truly radical technological shift.