New iPhone system means the time has come to take voice recognition Siriously
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Wednesday 16 November 2011
From feeding punch-cards into mainframe computers to hooking up a knackered cassette player to a ZX Spectrum and stabbing at an iPad that's perched on your lap, the process of telling computers what to do has always brought with it a certain amount of frustration. True, the invention of the point-and-click graphical interface prevented a few hernias, and keyboards have become much more pleasant to tap upon over the years, but ultimately computers and humans speak a different language. To paraphrase the scorching wisdom of Belinda Carlisle, we don't dream the same dream, and we don't want the same thing - we want to print 20 collated copies of the parish council newsletter, but the printer would rather switch off and have a bit of a rest.
Siri, the voice recognition system that ships with the new iPhone 4S, represents a shift in the way we interact with gadgets. Yes, I know Siri has its predecessors. Voice recognition has been built into Windows for years, and MacOS even longer, and Android phones are able to respond to voice commands, too. But, crucially, the launch of Siri marks the point where we're persuaded that it might actually work, and it might be more than just a gimmick. The head of Google's Android division, Andy Rubin, recently stated his belief that phones should be gadgets you talk through, rather than at, but Apple clearly thinks otherwise.
Anecdotal evidence suggests we're starting to believe the hype. Asking our phone to, say, wake us up at a certain time in the morning is far easier than doing it manually. "People now expect that you should be able to speak ordinary English [to your phone] and be understood," says Gary Morgenthaler, an expert in artificial intelligence, who also happens to be on the board of Siri. It's unsurprising that he would big up his own product, but the implications of the software proving to be successful are profound. In the recently released biography of Steve Jobs, there's talk of the Apple TV; not the little black box that currently sells for under £100 in Apple stores, but a proper television. Jobs, believing the television industry is "totally broken", foresaw "the simplest interface you can imagine". This, unsurprisingly, doesn't involve remote controls or onscreen interfaces, but voice recognition. Saying "I want to watch Celebrity Masterchef" is vastly preferable to scrolling through various listing screens and on-demand menus. Siri-style technology could make that possible within a couple of years.
There are innumerable other ways that savvy voice recognition could impact on our lives in the relatively short term. A recent article by John S Wilson, a health policy analyst, talks of the potential improvements in healthcare that could be brought about by Siri and its competitors, enabling calls to emergency services by simple voice prompts with GPS co-ordinates telling the ambulance crews exactly where to head for. On a more mundane level, the inclusion of Bluetooth LE in the iPhone 4S could enable remote voice operation for all kinds of gadgets by using Siri as the controller. Saying "turn the heating on for half an hour" to a gadget could seem relatively normal before too long.
Siri's introduction hasn't been without its hiccups. A period of outage the other day suddenly reminded users of the fact that Siri is entirely dependent on the internet – and indeed Apple's servers – to operate properly. But while that could be seen as a weakness, Apple knows what it's doing. Because every voice command they receive improves the way Siri works. It's learning. It has already got to grips with Scottish and Australian accents far better in the few weeks it's been released. And by the end of next year, it will be able to call a cab in response to "Siri, I'm drunk" – no matter how slurred and incomprehensible your speech has become.
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