Sunday, November 06, 2011

Siri, Your New Best friend

I can still remember how mesmerized I was in 1968 watching the haunting exchanges between Dr. David Bowman and the Hal 9000 Computer. This interaction between a machine and a human being was perhaps the first time the promise of operating a machine with voice commands was demonstrated to the general movie going public. Of course, if you remember the movie, all did not go as planned on that voyage through the galaxy.

The recent launch of the Apple iPhone 4s brought back memories of 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the 4s has some modest improvements to its innards over the iPhone 4, the big news is Siri. Siri has been around for a while but this new iteration is the first to allow users to give directions or ask questions to the phone using plain language. So “Open the pod bay doors Hal” or “I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave” are no longer the stuff of science fiction.

I am sure we will look back in a few years and see the current iteration of Siri as somewhat primitive. Siri works best when you ask it to do simple tasks like entering an appointment in you calendar or do a Google search for a specific piece of information. Of course, it can place voice calls and send and retrieve text messages all hands free.

Like most Apple products the interface is simple. You press a button and ask Siri a question. For example, ask Siri what the weather will be and you will get a report of the current weather in your location. What you don’t see or hear is that when you ask that question, in the background with light speed, Siri analyzes your words, checks the internal GPS to ascertain where the phone is now located and then uses that information to search for a weather service on the web that has the local information. Once obtained, Siri will read to you the information. Again all this is done in a few seconds.

Siri is not perfect. A recent exchange between Stephen Colbert and Siri on the Colbert Report demonstrated that. Unlike the Hal 9000 that seemingly could do everything to operate Dr. Bowman’s spacecraft, Siri was not of much help to Steven when he asked for help writing a script for the show. Nevertheless Siri is a big step towards the promise of voice recognition technology and artificial intelligence based personal services.

Now I have to admit that I do not yet have an iPhone 4s, but I do plan to get one when my current smart phone, which seems to be getting less smart all the time, is due for replacement. Perhaps Siri can write the column for me?

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