Taking Siri seriously

06 Oct 2011

Apple has revealed the iPhone 4S, and so far the general reaction has been … well, the kind of reaction you’d expect from everyone who was hoping it would be the iPhone 5.

Many tech pundits and analysts have given token appreciation for two key upgrades – the dual-core A5 chipset and the Siri personal assistant feature. But that may be a much bigger deal than it sounds.

Siri isn't the first voice-activated PA app for smartphones. The difference is that it’s now not just an app that runs on iOS – its functionality is now firmly integrated within the OS itself, with the A5 chip to back it up, both of which should give it considerable punch that previous attempts at "virtual personal assistant" software agents have lacked.

That’s saying something considering Siri’s pedigree. The technology behind it began as a five-year DARPA research project in artificial intelligence called CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes). SRI International, which coordinated the program, eventually took the knowledge gained by that project and founded Siri.

In other words, Siri is essentially an artificial-intelligence technology that has the power to change the way people interact with iPhones.

Norman Winarsky, Siri’s co-founder and board member, described it this way to 9to5Mac (in an interview conducted before the iPhone 4S announcement):

Apple’s ‘mainstreaming’ Artificial Intelligence in the form of a Virtual Personal Assistant is a groundbreaking event. I’d go so far as to say it is a World-Changing event. Right now a few people dabble in partial AI enabled apps like Google Voice Actions, Vlingo or Nuance Go. Siri was many iterations ahead of these technologies, or at least it was two years ago. This is REAL AI with REAL market use. If the rumors are true, Apple will enable millions upon millions of people to interact with machines with natural language. The PAL will get things done and this is only the tip of the iceberg. We’re talking another technology revolution. A new computing paradigm shift.

You may say to yourself, “Well, of course he would say that.” Fair call. Whether Winarsky’s view is actually true or not will depend on how Siri performs in the real world, and whether users will find any actual use for it.

But it’s clear what Apple is trying to achieve here. Touchscreens have fundamentally changed the way people interface with their handsets. (I like writer Warren Ellis’ description of this: “the phone screen as ghost box, as viewer and mediator of the invisible world of informational connection and flow.”) The question then becomes what would it take to create another paradigm shift in mobile interfaces?

Augmented reality comes up a lot, and that’s part of it. But giving the smartphone the intelligence to understand you when you talk to it – and allow you to talk to it as though you are talking to someone at a service counter – is a pretty big deal.

Again, that’s assuming Siri works anywhere close to Apple’s claims in real life. And I haven't tested it myself, of course, so I can’t tell you if it does.

But if it does, Apple may have indeed just seriously upped the ante for all of its smartphone rivals.

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