Earlier this week, Apple introduced the new iPhone 4S.
It was new CEO Tim Cook’s first time at bat for the software giant. The announcement was held in a much smaller venue than usual, and the reaction wasn’t as big as the response to previous iPhone unveilings. But, one new feature really stole the show: “Siri,” a personal digitized assistant that listens to your requests via voice recognition.
As Cook introduced the new feature, he referred back to this concept as being “teased at” by programmers since computers were in their infancy. In most depictions of the future in sci-fi movie and television shows, people talk to their computers, belting out commands that the computer completely understands and quickly accommodates after a frenzy of beeps.
Indeed, in the ’90s and 2000s alone we have seen many attempts at voice recognition. Video games have tried it on many occasions, such as Nintendo’s “Hey You Pikachu,” “Odama” and Sega’s “Seaman.” Newer cars have used voice recognition along with iPod connections to create a hands-free experience. Apple has even tried it themselves in some of the most recent versions of Mac OS X, though they tailored the device more towards handicap accessibility. There’s also a rudimentary voice command system on the Apple device you might be reading this column on now.
But one of the things that will supposedly set Siri apart from these previous attempts is that it will understand human language. You can talk to Siri like you can to any other person, instead of in a formulaic way the computer could understand. In other words, instead of having to say “Play artist Alan Parsons Project,” you might say, “Could you play me a song by the Alan Parsons Project?”
The real beauty of the human language recognition concept is that it understands requests even when the sounds differ. However, this is also the part that holds it back the most.
An entire team of programmers and linguists could spend months programming meanings of words and context algorithms but only scratch the surface of the many ways that people say various commands. And it takes plenty of processing horsepower to analyze your voice while tuning out any background noise.
So the question is, will it work? Tuesday’s unveiling showed it working flawlessly, but many software companies “script up” presentations like this to go exactly as they want, and judging from the footage, that was likely the case here.
But if Siri overcomes all these obstacles I have outlined, we could see a new age of computer to human relations. It’s something that movie screenwriters could only dream about in the ’80s. This future could be right around the corner, but don’t get your hopes up too much.