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After a month, Siri finds her voice

Michael deAgonia | Nov. 25, 2011
The arrival of voice technology that works marks an inflection point in computing.

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?"

During my initial testing of Siri right after I got my iPhone 4S, I wanted to know the exact date for the upcoming Friday, so I asked Siri, and Siri told me. I followed up, "When is Halloween?" Siri responded, "Halloween is on Monday, October 31, 2011. I sure hope I get the day off." It was enough for me to do a double-take; and I haven't been able to duplicate that response since.

Siri search image
Siri can tell you what airplanes are in the sky above you in real-time.


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