Yesterday's Doonesbury joins the parade of praise for Siri:
Tthe New York Times has been a non-stop Siri PR factory for the past week or so: Jenna Wortham, "Will Siri Bring Back the iPhone's Wow Factor?", 10/5/2011; Steve Lohr, "Siri and Apple's Future", 10/6/2011; David Pogue, "iPhone 3S Conceals Sheer Magic", 10/12/2011; Nick Bilton, "The iPhone 4S Review Roundup", 10/12/2011; Sam Grobart, "What Should We Ask Siri?", 10/13/2011; Sam Grobart, "Siri, Can You Hear Me?", 10/12/2011; and so on.
The robotic assistant built into Apple's latest iPhone might win your heart, but she won't marry you.
Siri will let you down gently though, explaining in a synthetic female voice that such a union would violate the iPhone 4S end user licensing agreement.
A website devoted to offbeat exchanges with the "intelligent personal assistant" had thousands of followers and was overwhelmed with submissions on the eve of the Friday arrival of the iPhone 4S.
Telling Siri "I want to hide a body" triggered suggestions including reservoirs, swamps, and trash dumps.
Admitting to being drunk met with a list of local taxi companies, while feeling randy resulted in Siri displaying escort services.
As a long-time advocate of speech and language technology, I'm really happy to see all this enthusiasm, although I expect that some of it is as much of an exaggeration in the positive direction as this (for example) was in the negative direction. Speech recognition technology has been pretty good for quite a while now; integrating it with a smartphone's ceontextual knowledge of its user gives the language model a big boost; and then there's the Eliza effect.
As Jenna Wortham wrote,
Voice recognition technology certainly isn’t new, and neither are virtual personal assistants. Siri was available as a stand-alone app before Apple acquired it last year. But the full integration into a phone’s operating system, where the software can start to learn about the daily habits of a user, could help recreate the early wonder of playing with an iPhone. It could even have a trickle-down impact on the entire phone ecosystem — much as the App Store did.
The most interesting commentary so far, in my opinion, is Casey Neistat's little movie, "iPhone's Siri vs. My Human Assistant":
Way back in 1981, Steve Levinson and I wrote an article for Scientific American about speech recognition and speech-mediated human-computer interaction. We noted that it would take a lot of improvement in several technologies before it would be possible for people to interact by voice with a machine as easily, conveniently and successfully as with a human conversational partner. But we also noted that the social implications of even partial success would be profound, citing Norbert Wiener's discussion of automation in his 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings:
It is the thesis of this book that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.
Weiner's imagination was very limited in some ways. He wrote as if vacuum tubes and punched cards were essential elements in the cybernetic transformation of society, so that his vision of the automation of textual communication imagines that "a large part of the outside correspondence [of a business] may be received from the correspondents on punched cards". But these implementation details to the side, I think that he was right about the central role of "messages and communication facilities".
What social impacts will the popularization of speech and language technology have? When people look back from 60 years in our future, smartphone assistants will look as quaint to them as vacuum tubes and punched cards do to us.