The Siri Sensation

December/January 2011/2012

People are mischievous. When Apple recently debuted Siri on the iPhone 4S, it was meant to be a personal assistant. You can ask Siri, "Do I need an umbrella today," and the synthesized female voice will tell you the likelihood of rain. Or you can say, "Siri, remind me to call Jane when I get home," and Siri will put a note on your Reminder list and will then remind you when you're back home.

Many people are indeed using Siri as intended. But, as you might expect, early on they also began asking this friendly personal assistant lots of other stuff too. Like, "Siri, what's the meaning of life?"

Siri has a number of answers for that:

"I can't answer that now, but give me some time to write a very long play in which nothing happens." And "I don't know. But I think there's an app for that." And "42." And "All evidence to date suggests it's chocolate." And more.

Or ask Siri "How much wood would a woodchuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" And Siri variously responds "42 cords of wood, to be exact. Everyone knows that." Or "A woodchuck would chuck as much as a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood." Or "It depends on whether you are talking about African or European wood."

Someone who was smitten with this new personal assistant said, "Siri, I love you." The response: "Oh stop" and "You are the wind beneath my wings."

That's typical Apple computer. Make something functional, but also make it fun.

Frankly, there was initially a bit of a letdown when Apple announced the iPhone 4S on October 4. People were expecting an iPhone 5, with a larger screen and somewhat different form factor. Instead, they got the 4S, which is indistinguishable from an iPhone 4. But the new phone comes with Siri, and very quickly it was a sensation. Over 4 million iPhone 4S units were sold in the first three days.

Apple has a history of transforming the way we interact with technology, introducing the personal computer, then the graphical user interface and mouse, then a phone that you touched. And now a phone that you can talk to. No more tapping the screen. You can listen to text messages as you drive and dictate responses. You can ask for information. You can tell your iPhone to do things.

New York Times columnist David Pogue described Siri as "mind-blowing," and gave examples of the range of questions or commands that she can respond to:

"You can say, 'Wake me up at 7:35,' or 'Change my 7:35 alarm to 8.' You can say, 'What's Gary's work number?' Or, 'How do I get to the airport?' Or, 'Any good Thai restaurants around here?' Or, 'Make a note to rent 'Ishtar' this weekend.' Or, 'How many days until Valentine's Day?' Or, 'Play some Beatles.' Or, 'When was Abraham Lincoln born?'"

Speech recognition has been available for some time, but what makes Siri different is that you speak in everyday normal language and Siri will understand. In the past, speech recognition apps have typically limited you to specific commands. And dictation apps would record and transcribe what you said, but had no idea what you were saying.

Siri, on the other hand, is an example of the use of artificial intelligence to understand natural language. This is the future. This is how we'll eventually be interacting with all our devices. In many ways, it's the most natural.

For now, Siri is only available on the iPhone 4S, and I'm very sad that I can't use it on my iPad. But it'll no doubt be coming to the iPad, the Macintosh, and other computers and devices. Already there's a similar free app for Android called SpeakToIt that has some of the functionality but isn't nearly as advanced as Siri.

The beauty of Siri is that Apple not only came up with an early technology for natural language understanding for the masses, but had the insight to give Siri a personality. You might expect as much from Apple. They have a history of making technology friendly. And what better way to help people embrace this new technology than to make Siri humorous and even personable?

One person asked Siri, "Will you marry me?" Siri: "My End User Licensing Agreement does not cover marriage. My apologies."

This month's hot tips:

Within a week of the appearance of the iPhone 4S, Siri had already generated a whole subculture on the web, with many YouTube videos and websites documenting Siri's entertaining side, including Siri Says, S*** That Siri Says, Siri Humor, Siri Funny, and Sirious Humor.

© 2011 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen