Slightly outdated thoughts on Siri

I wrote the following piece for the Telegraph a few hours before Steve Jobs’ death was announced, so unsurprisingly, it didn’t go up. And since it’s all about Siri – which is now released – it’s a bit out of date. But I thought you might be interested in seeing it anyway:

This week, the iPhone 5 – sorry, the iPhone 4S – was announced by Apple to millions of anxious fans across the world. Despite containing a significantly faster processor, better antenna, longer battery, higher resolution camera, and more memory and storage space, many were disappointed because it didn’t look any different from the previous model, the iPhone 4 – specifically, because it didn’t have a bigger screen and a thinner body.

I can understand that this may have been a letdown. Over the past few years, we have been accustomed to constant improvements in performance and form-factor among all consumer electronics – not just from Apple, but from all manufacturers like HTC and Samsung and Sony. For better or worse, these devices have taken the same role as jewellery and watches in terms of being status symbols and signs of wealth and taste.

These outward changes, however, can blind us to the remarkable changes in software that are constantly making it easier for a wider number of people to use computing devices. It wasn’t so long ago that to use a computer, you had to master the instructions of a command line in UNIX or DOS; and even more recent versions of Windows and Mac OS have required an understanding of graphical user interfaces that can fox the more timid or cautious user. The touchscreen interfaces of iPhone and Androids, in comparison, are much more intuitive to use – not only do you not need to use a mouse, but the ‘skeuomorphic’ designs they frequently employ which mimic existing physical interfaces (like calculators and address books) help ground us in the familiar.

It’s easy to deride these changes as being mere crutches for those who aren’t smart or quick enough to learn Windows or Mac OS. After all, the very notion of computers and the internet is tied up in most people’s minds as involving scrollbars and mouse pointers and menu items and so on. But the truth is that there are millions of people out there – from infants to the elderly – who are now able to use applications, browse the web, write email, and play games, in a much easier and less frightening way than before.

With its new voice recognition system and Siri, its ‘intelligent assistant’, the iPhone 4S takes matters even further. According to the demonstrations, iPhone 4S users will simply be able to speak “Tell my wife I’m running late” or “Remind me to call the vet” and the phone will be able to send the appropriate text message or to-do item.

Now, this is not the first phone to include voice recognition – the iPhone 3G and 4 have included it, along with numerous Android phones; indeed, Android phones also allow you to dictate text messages and find out what the weather is without any button presses. However, the big difference is that you have to be much more specific in how to speak to those older phones – you can’t be too conversational about it, you need to say something like “weather in London” or “indian restaurants near SW4”.

Any self-respecting geek will not find it at all difficult or unusual to phrase requests in that way; they’re used to writing commands and performing operations that suit the limitations of computers. Normal people, though, don’t actually speak in that way. We don’t say to each other “weather in London?”, we say “What was the weather like down there yesterday?” Yes, it takes longer, but it’s much more natural.

Ultimately it’s the ability of computers to adapt to human habits and limitations rather than vice versa that will determine how useful and widespread computers will be in the future. There’ll always be a place for the command line and the graphic user interface for programmers and scientists and engineers, for whom ambiguity can cost millions and kill lives, but for the rest of us, it will be much easier to be able to speak to computers as we speak to anyone else.


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