The Apple “Let’s Talk iPhone” event has concluded. Tim Cook and a slew of Apple execs have taken it in turns to tell us about the latest and greatest Apple goodies, and rather underwhelmingly there’s no iPhone 5 and just significant takeaways: a cheaper and faster iPhone 4S, and an interesting software package called Siri. You can read all about the iPhone 4S on our sister sites Geekand PC Mag — here we’re going to talk about Siri.
If we look past the rather Indian (and feminine) name, Siri is a portable (and pocketable) virtual personal assistant. She has a speech-recognition module which works out what you’re saying, and then a natural language parser combs through your words to work out what you’re trying to do. Finally, an artificial intelligence gathers the possible responses and works out which one is most likely to be accurate, given the context, your geographical location, iOS’s current state, and so on.
Siri is, in essence, a computer that you can interrogate for answers, kind of like a search engine that runs locally on your phone. If you’ve seen IBM’s Watson play Jeopardy, Siri is basically a cut-down version. She isn’t intelligent per se, but if she has access to enough data, she can certainly appear intelligent. Siri’s data sources are open APIs, like Wikipedia or Wolfram Alpha, and in theory there’s no limit to the number of sources that can be added (though it does require significant developer time to add a new data set). For now you can ask Siri about the weather or the definition of a word, but in the future, if Apple links Siri up to United Airlines, you’ll be able to book a plane ticket, just by talking. Because Siri runs locally, she can also send SMSes or set reminders, or anything else that Apple (or app developers) allow her to do.
Artificial intelligence isn’t cheap in terms of processing power, though: Siri is expected to only run on the iPhone 4S, which sports a new and significantly faster processor than its predecessors, the A5. Siri probably makes extensive use of Apple’s new cloud computer cluster, too, much in the same way that Amazon Silk splits web browsing between the cloud and the local device.
That’s enough about what Siri is and how it works. Let’s talk about whether anyone will actually use Siri, which is fundamentally a glorified voice control search engine. Voice commands have existed in some semblance since at least as far back as the Nokia 3310, which was released in 2000. Almost every phone since then has had the ability to voice dial, or in the case of modern smartphones, voice activate apps and features.
When was the last time you saw someone talk to their phone? Driving and other hands-otherwise-occupied activities don’t count. When was the last time you walked down the street and heard someone loudly dictate “call mom” into their phone? Can you really see yourself saying “Siri, I want a kebab” in public?
It might lose its social stigma if everyone talks to their phone, but isn’t it already annoying enough that people swan down streets with hands-free headsets, blabbing away? It’s not like voice recognition is at the stage where you can whisper or mumble a command into your phone, either: you’re going to have to say, nice and clearly, “how do I get to the bank?” in public. Now imagine that you’ve just walked past the guy who’s talking to Siri — is he asking you for directions, or Siri? Now imagine what it would be like if everyone around you is having a one-sided phone conversation or talking to Siri.
Finally, there’re practical implications to consider, which Apple usually ignores in its press events. For example, will Siri only recognize my voice? What if I leave my phone in the living room and my girlfriend shouts out “honey, we should go to that Italian restaurant” — will Siri then make a reservation? On a more nefarious note, will my wife be able to say “Siri, show me my husband’s hidden email.” When walking down a street, will Siri overhear other conversations and react accordingly?
Siri will be fantastic in the car, that’s for certain. She will also be very accommodating when you’re on your own — imagine shouting across the room “Siri, do I need to wear a jacket today?” or “Siri, download the latest episode of Glee.” Siri will be unusable in public, though, while on the move — and that’s the one time where you really don’t want to be looking down at that darn on-screen keyboard.
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