Quick! Dispatch out that gazpacho, Ms. Siri

Siri, the voice command personal assistant application in the iPhone 4S, is still in beta. Even so, Apple recently began running two TV ads with well-known actors touting Siri's capabilities in seemingly real-life situations.

The capabilities implied in the ads by Siri seem exaggerated at best, and deceptive at worst. Many iPhone 4S users will love the iPhone -- the most popular smartphone on the planet --despite Siri. They might do well to ignore Siri altogether and judge the phone on its other merits.

In one of the ads, actor Samuel L. Jackson uses Siri to help in cooking gazpacho soup for a date night. In the other, Zooey Deschanel appears in p.j.'s inside her home, asks Siri if it's raining outside, wants to find a restaurant that delivers soup and asks Siri to play a tune. 

Part of what's offered in the ads is the exciting promise of artificial intelligence used in computers such as smartphones and the capabilities of using speech to interface with a computer, instead of touchscreen strokes. But promise isn't reality -- and might not be for many years still.

Siri does appear to be more accomplished than other smartphones I've used and tested at recognizing voice commands such as "Call Al Jones," which inititates a call by using a number which comes from my phone's directory. In terms of Siri's ability to "reason" with AI to understand what I MEANT to say in a given situation, I have found Siri decidedly in the beta camp.

Based on my experiences with Siri and those of analysts and other users, Siri is not ready for prime time as an AI tool, although I do admire Apple for being willing to arouse interest through its marketing and installation of the app in the iPhone 4S.

The question about whether the new TV ads and other Siri ads are deceptive is up to the courts.   

Two lawsuits filed in March in Los Angeles and New York call Apple's ads deceptive, and say that Apple's commercials and marketing make out Siri to be more intelligent that it is.  

Ars Technica found nearly 30% of 2,800 votes in a survey were from readers who said they no longer used the assistant because they tried it and didn't like it. Another 20 percent still used it with complaints, while 22 said they still use it and like its functionality.

My wife recently bought an iPhone 4S (I regularly use an iPhone 4 and have tried Siri many times other iPhone 4S devices) and had some fun trying to get some intelligent answers from Siri. Her experience isn't at all scientific, but illustrates the problems with the app's understanding of her speech commands (her articulation and enunciation) and also the essence of what she meant (Siri's AI deciding between literal communications and implied communications).   

Asked, "How do i cook gazpacho?" Siri responded, "This is about you, not me."  Trying again, she asked: "How do YOU cook gaspacho?" and got from Siri: "Sorry I missed that. Let me think about it. I can't answer, but I can search the Web if you like."

Told "yes" to go ahead with a Web search, Siri came back with Google Search page with the question in text in the search field, slightly mangled, that asked: "How do you cook dispatch out?"

Trying to enunciate "gazpacho" on yet another try, Siri came back with with "How do you make the spot show?" and several URLs about spot removal and businesses connected to the word "spot."

On a third try with careful enunciation, my wife got a verbal response from Siri that said there were 19 restaurants nearby that serve soup.  That's not obviously a cooking recipe for Gazpacho, but also not terribly different than the kind of response one would expect to get from typing in the same language on a typical search engine.

As with many smartphones and Web searches, most of us laugh when realize that we are the ones being trained by our computers, instead of getting our computers to adapt to us.  We are being trained to  speak clearly, in a quiet room unaffected by noise from a humming automobile or dishwasher in the kitchen.  We are also trained in the logic in our communications (as in, "It's about you, not me.)

Siri, like other AI and voice command tools, apparently must learn from a user, to a limited extent. There aren't tutorials where one would train the speech engine as in the past, and yet Siri still seemed to pick up my wife's pronuciation over just a few minutes--a bit. Some of the logical progressions Siri made were actually pretty astounding. Examples:

Asking Siri "Do I have an appointment today at 4 o'clock?" Siri quickly came back with, "You don't have anything on your calendar at 4 p.m." Then to be a bit tricky, she asked: "What about tomorrow?" to which she surprisingly got back: "Here" with an onscreen listing of the next day's calendar showing a 3 p.m. meeting with the music department. That was pretty slick, if you think about it, because Siri not only recognized the prior question and tied it the calendar for the following day, but also the appointment just before 4 p.m.

My wife's use of Siri might get even better over time, but you do wonder if it will be consistent enough to be something practical on a regular basis, especially in a business setting. I can just imagine a businessman trying to reason with Siri and yelling into his iPhone while office visitors next door listen to his use of four-letter words, enuciated in loud tones.  Now, that won't ever be an Apple TV ad, but situations like it have already been made into comedy sketches.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said Siri is a very good application "if you ask the right questions."   The problem with Apple's recent TV ads is they make speech recognition and AI "sound perfect, which it's not....this is not easy technology to do." Siri and other similar applications don't so far "understand standard human converations."

For buyers, the bigger implication of the latest Apple TV ads is about what a customer can expect, Gold added."If users expect something and get disappointed, they don't come back," he said."If technology overpromises, people get disillusioned."  

Gold said Apple may be using Siri as a way to make itself appear unique and different from popular Android phones, especially those from Samsung.  Apple didn't respond to my request to comment on any of  this.

My advice: if you are interested in an iPhone 4S, buy it for a great touchscreen experience, an exquisite browser, styling and access to a wide range of apps.   Use Siri as much as you want, for fun and more, but don't count on it. It's beta, after all.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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