After a month, Siri finds her voice

The arrival of voice technology that works marks an inflection point in computing

After a month of using Siri, the new voice-controlled "personal assistant" available on the iPhone 4S, I've decided it may be time to add voice control to the list of paradigm-shifting ways to interact with a computer -- right behind the mouse, keyboard and, more recently, touch gestures. While voice control remains far from perfect, the ease of use and instant results Siri delivers may be just enough to shift people's habits. It's certainly changed mine.

Controlling computers using voice commands has been a promised fantasy for years. Though various companies have tried, none has delivered something easy, convenient, or reliable enough to work well for most users. Apple's Mac OS has had voice commands built in since the mid-1990s, and I recall Windows booths at CompUSA staffed by Dragon Dictation engineers wearing awkward headsets, as OS/2 Warp gathered dust on the shelves.

In fact, most phones have been able to do voice-controlled contact and number dialing since before the arrival of smartphones. Despite widespread availability, voice control never gained traction because the effort required to get it to work right wasn't worth it for most people. Voice control -- from the old Speakable Items in Mac OS to the method of dialing contacts on older cell phones -- always required specific phrasing that sounded more like a command than natural speech.

"Dial 5-5-5-5-5-5-1-2-3-4" -- enunciating each word and number -- is a lot harder to do on a regular basis than to simply say "Call mom."

How Siri is different

Siri changes things in much the same way the original Mac changed computing for many people. Before the Mac arrived in 1984, most computers required specific text commands to be entered into terminals. The combination of the mouse and the graphic user interface not only forever changed the direction of those who built and designed computers; it also opened up computing to a new batch of users. Similarly, touch-screen devices were available long before the first iPhone arrived in 2007, but it was the iPhone's hardware and software combo that changed expectations of what a next-generation phone should be like -- and opened the door to the iPad three years later. How you connect with technology matters, whether it's by GUI, touch or voice. And new ways of interacting with technology can pique the interest of people who have avoided it in the past.

This is what makes Siri different -- and better -- than earlier voice technology. With Siri, the syntax -- that is, the way you phrase an inquiry -- doesn't always have to be exact. For the most part, when you make a request for information, dictate an email or issue a command, the technology behind Siri parses out what is meant and responds accordingly. As noted, most phones understand a "dial" command followed by a string of numbers, but Siri knows exactly what to do when told to "create a reminder for every Thursday morning at 7:08 to take out the trash."

That doesn't mean that Siri reads minds. When it listens to a sentence, the response is triggered by certain keywords or variations of what is meant. While the artificial intelligence behind Siri is better than previous voice command technology, there are times when specific syntax is still important. "Send a message to my sister telling her to call me later" will result in a text message to my sister that reads: "Call me later." Impressive, right? But saying "Show me upcoming birthdays" will cause Siri to respond, "Sorry, I don't understand 'Show me upcoming birthdays' " (with the option to search the Web). But if I phrase the query this way -- "Show me birthday appointments" -- then the proper information from Calendars will be retrieved and shown.

Siri image
Siri uses natural language to understand what you're asking, and responds in kind.

In other words, there are still times when you have to adapt to Siri rather than the other way around. (It's also why the technology is still technically beta.)

Even though the use of specific syntax is essential sometimes -- for instance, if you want to tell Siri to specifically search Google, Bing, Yahoo or Wiki -- the need for it has been minimized. More importantly, Siri currently recognizes enough commands to lower the bar of entry to entice users that may have given up on good speech recognition. I know it has enticed me.

Personality goes a long way

But Siri goes beyond answering questions or pulling up results. Siri will respond with questions in some cases to help refine your query, and it'll walk you through dictating emails and text messages. Even more endearing is that Siri has a bit of personality. For instance, "Open the pod bay doors" is a popular command that numerous iPhone 4S users have tried -- and posted about online. (Anyone familiar with the movie 2001, A Space Odyssey will understand the reference.) Siri's answers vary from "sigh" to a slow, drawn-out imitation of HAL, quickly followed by a sarcastic "Are you happy now?"

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