Feature

Siri: Artificial intelligence becomes more human

Apple’s voice-activated “virtual assistant” for the new iPhone 4S can talk in clear, conversational English.

She can text your kids with words you dictate aloud. She can book you an appointment online. She knows precisely where you are, and can find the nearest Chinese restaurant, call a cab for you, and tell you what the traffic will be like on the way. Her name is Siri, said Brandon Griggs in CNN.com, and she’s Apple’s voice-activated “virtual assistant” for the new iPhone 4S. Simply by speaking to your phone, you can tell Siri to perform any number of tasks—and she can talk back, in clear, conversational English. Not incidentally, this dutiful assistant has a female name and “distinctly female” voice. Does that mean Apple is relying on—and reinforcing—gender stereotypes? It’s a fair question, said Rebecca J. Rosen in TheAtlantic.com. Like most disembodied computer voices, Siri evokes the pleasantly compliant and submissive female assistant, as she goes about “classic personal secretary tasks.”

Chauvinists might enjoy the idea of having a female secretary in their pocket, said Michael Agger in Slate.com. But Siri is no doormat. Apple wisely has given Siri a tart and witty personality. Curse at her, and she’ll tut: “Now, now.” Ask her to “talk dirty,” and she’ll say, “Compost. Pumice. Silt. Gravel.” Call her a bitch, and she will make you feel ridiculous: “Why do you hate me?” she’ll say. “I don’t even exist.” As a result, she comes across less as a sexy secretary than as a “second-grade teacher,” quick with a sarcastic response but also “willing to patiently explain.” It makes Siri so life-like, you almost forget that “the intelligence we’re dealing with is artificial.”

That’s the plan, said Jon Stokes in Wired.com. Siri is a “cloud” application, meaning that Apple’s developers can update her “canned responses” in real time based on user inquiries. Over time, she’ll be able to draw on the questions of tens of millions of users and the responses by hundreds of Apple employees. As she gets smarter and smarter, you’ll be able to talk with Siri in a way that is almost indistinguishable from “intelligent conversation.” Hello, future, said Alexis Madrigal in TheAtlantic.com. Humans have always dreamed of creating a “talking automaton” that speaks “in the natural language that defines being human.” Siri is a big step in that direction. As she listens and learns from us, and helps organize our lives, she will transform “how we interact with our computers.”

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