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11.16.11

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Siri-ous

Apple's gal Friday

By Daedalus Howell


Building real-time voice-recognition into our gadgets has been a holy grail for technologists ever since an onscreen superhero commanded an artificial intelligence to do his bidding in some sepia-toned sci-fi serial.

Who this first human-computer interlocutor was, exactly, is lost to the annals of speculative fiction, though its echoes can be heard from Star Trek to the customer service bot on the other side of the 800 number at your credit card company. The results, on all scores, have been mixed. This is why Siri, Apple's virtual girl Friday (or guy, depending on your settings) has been greeted with such enthusiasm: it actually works.

Installed on the new iPhone 4S, Siri is a voice-driven interface that allows one to talk to one's phone to execute in-phone tasks, searches and device navigation to existential volleys that have birthed something of a Siri-humor meme online. Screenshots and videos of Siri in action have been proliferating, thanks in great part to the wags at SiriHumor.net, which features Siri's more risible exchanges. Ask her about a certain woodchuck's wood-chucking prowess and Siri drolly replies, "A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck." Sounds about right.

When asked about the meaning of life or where one might score weed, Siri does her best—admitting she either doesn't know or that she "cannot find a headshop." Where Siri really comes through is when one is in a serious jam, as when her offscreen conversation partner asked "Where can I hide a dead body?" Siri placidly replied "What kind of place are you looking for?" and produced a list that included "swamps, reservoirs, dumps, metal foundries, mines." Apparently, Siri is more than an assistant—she's an accessory after the fact. I think I'm in love.

Siri began life as a company that developed an eponymously named third party iPhone app meant to function as a "click reduction machine," according to its CEO Dag Kittlaus. The user experience was so effective, it soon became the apple of Apple's eye, which purchased the company for $200 million last year. Reportedly also bidding was Google, which has struggled with its own voice-recognition tools, most notably Google Voice, its free online voice messaging service. The search giant's technology, however, is more useful generating cryptograms than intelligible voice mail transcriptions. When I receive a text or email transcriptions of Google Voice messages, I don't read them so much as decipher them. They read like the poorly translated assembly instructions one might read on Engrish.com—part Mad Libs, part "Dada list," which is the closest it's ever gotten to my admittedly unusual name.

How Google will compete with Siri for its own Android smart-phone operating system will prove interesting. When asked "What do you think of Android?" Siri replied, "I think differently."


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