Cyberclinic: This time Apple is Siri-us about voice recognition

The reaction to Apple's product launch on Tuesday demonstrated how shallow we can be. There were dissatisfied mumblings over the absence of the number 5 after the new iPhone's name, or an unnecessarily radical new design.

Some even moaned about the new features on offer – although you suspect such people would be grumbling even if it allowed you to leap tall buildings in a single bound or bake you a moussaka. But one iPhone 4S feature stood out, and indeed had top billing: a voice recognition system called Siri.

Not just a voice recognition system, in fact; a talking (but not walking) personal assistant that can learn, think, delegate and respond in robotic female tones.

Apple's Scott Forstall was brave enough to attempt a live demonstration, presumably hoping it wouldn't end with him repeatedly screaming "fetch mail", and the phone impassively replying "I didn't catch that".

It didn't, though, and while things began fairly unimpressively (it's way easier to launch the weather application than to actually ask your phone what the weather is like) things did pick up. For example, saying "Wake me up at 6am" is easier than setting your phone's alarm, while saying: "Remind me to call my wife when I leave work". Knowing that the phone can sense your departure from the office, remember who your wife is and prompt you to place the call – is truly jaw-dropping.

Voice recognition isn't new, but voice recognition that functions properly is. While Macintosh computers had some pitiful capability way back in 1993, significant strides forward have been made recently by companies like Dragon Dictation, Google and Spinvox (although the latter suffered terrible publicity when it transpired that much of the work was done by sweatshop labour rather than computers).

But Apple's launch of Siri has the unusual effect of inspiring confidence that it will work, and that it won't suffer, as many previous services have, from an inability to deal with mild accents.

We won't have to wait long to find out if that confidence is misplaced, or what regular use will feel like. Earlier this week, a video surfaced of a remarkably prescient Apple video made in 1987 called "Knowledge Navigator", which shows a university lecturer conversing freely with an iPad-like device – but will we feel comfortable talking to a software package in this way? Will peaceful office environments be disturbed by barked instructions? Will public transport reverberate to the sound of people saying things like "Message to Brian: Test results still not back from the hospital LOL"? Will we turn to our phone for needy reassurance, saying "How do I look?" and hope that it replies "I like what you've done with your hair"?

A friend of mine checked her website statistics a couple of days ago to discover that people had landed there as a result of posting plaintive enquiries to Google, such as "how do English men react in love", and "how to make a British guy like you". (The answers are "it depends" and "blackmail" respectively.)

But it made me ponder the role of the search engine as a provider of answers to life's more profound questions. "Will I ever be happy?" turns up an article curtly stating that this will only happen "when you decide to be happy, and not until". "What is the meaning of all this" guides us to that cauldron of profound thought, Yahoo Answers, where we're informed that "The world is cruel and kind". Neither answer is particularly enlightening; maybe Apple could equip Siri with a set of positive platitudes and market it to us as cheap therapy. I'd definitely sign up.

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