Who is Siri, Really?

Apple made headlines in December when it introduced Siri with the latest iteration of their iPhone, the 4S. Siri has been billed as an “intelligent personal assistant that helps you get things done by just asking.” It’s a new feature to the phone and coming to the iPad that allows you to control pretty much every life-related feature on the device. It has been touted to be able to do just about everything that your phone is capable of by entering simple, natural-language voice commands. So, what is Siri, really? How does it work in the real world we interact with daily, and not just in a controlled marketing test environment?

The Nuances of Siri

Siri was developed at Stanford Research Institute and takes its name from the organization’s initialism. Apple purchased the project and adapted it to their device. Siri utilizes a few third-party technologies as well. Nuance, the most well-known voice recognition technology, powers Siri’s ability to recognize what you’re saying, even if it’s “Hey Siri, think you could remind me to meet my brother tomorrow for lunch?” Nuance filters out exactly what you mean and schedules an appointment for tomorrow at lunchtime that notes your brother. Siri also utilizes Yelp and Wolfram Alpha for some of its other features. This allows you to search for local businesses and do computations like “What’s 15% of 34.86?”, useful for calculating tips, or finding out the number of calories in a cubic foot of guacamole.

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Holding the home button or moving the phone to your ear whenever you’re not in a call activates Siri. It’s simple and natural to use – which is what Apple tries to do with most of its interfaces.

The reality of Siri

Siri has been marketed as being able to do just about anything. The commercials, which star famous personalities like Samuel L. Jackson and Martin Scorsese, claim that you can locate friends, ask the meaning of life, or schedule appointments – all talking to the device like you would your personal assistant. We all know technology ads tend to exaggerate the actual usability of devices, so how accurate are these ads?

As long as you understand what the “sequences shortened” title card at the end of all the ads means, Siri is actually remarkably good at doing exactly what it claims. While the device won’t respond at conversational speeds like purported, the actual features are mostly there. Siri responds amazingly to contextual awareness, both location-wise and in your conversation. If you ask it the weather, it will tell you what the forecast is for your current location, but if you say “What about in New York?” it will remember that you’re talking about the weather and tell you the forecast for New York. It “just works,” instead of trying to plow through technical jargon with you.

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One of the very few limitations, though, is that if you try to do anything outside the features that have been integrated, Siri loses you. You can’t launch other apps or search your notes for that thing you wanted to look up. Apple has noticed this missing integration too and with the release of iOS 6, this fall, Siri is supposed to gain new abilities.

Siri is very human like and you will quickly find yourself saying “please” or “sorry” to your phone before you realize what you’re doing. It, essentially, replicates all the functionality of a personal secretary– albeit one constantly connected to the Internet. Therein lays a major drawback. If you don’t have a network connection, Siri can do almost nothing. So if you’re on a limited data plan, you might want to be more conservative with your queries.

Overall, Siri is moving in an excellent direction. I’m sure we’ll see more voice-powered interfaces in the future, and for now Siri does pretty much what it claims it can. I look forward to seeing what it turns into and for now – I think I’ll hold off on hiring a secretary.

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Andrea Eldridge is CEO of Nerds On Call, which offers onsite computer and laptop repair to homeowners and small businesses.  Based in Redding, Calif., it has locations in five states. Contact Eldridge at www.callnerds.com/andrea.

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