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Getting Serious With Siri

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Our robotic overlords must be delighted by the way iPhone users have taken to Siri.

I met her on Friday. But apparently, she was talking to me before we were formally introduced: When S arrived at the rail station to pick me up, Siri had been reading my text messages aloud and sending me his responses.

S was delighted. “Listen to this,” he said to me. “Siri, who is my wife?”

“Which one?” Siri responded.

I raised an eyebrow. “Am I missing something here?”

“No. Hold on a sec.” S tried again, “Siri, who is my wife.”

Siri took a minute. “Hold on,” she said. “Calling Krystal D’Costa.” (Good idea—I might know the answer, Siri.) “Do you want me to save this relationship, S?” I looked over quizzically at S, who laughed and agreed that she should, which she presumably took to mean she should update her records.

“Siri, where is my wife?” he continued, obviously enjoying this. I groaned inwardly, knowing full well where this was going. Siri was not quite sure who she should be looking for though. “I don’t know who that is,” she responded. Not deterred in the least, S asked again. “Looking for Krystal D’Costa. I can’t do that. You’re not logged into your Find My Friends account.”

He’s been pestering me to create a Find My Friends account for a few days, acknowledging my discomfort at being “tracked”—which is why my public activity on FourSquare is at a minimum (I’m not ignoring those of you who have tried to add me; I’m just not very active over there)—but enthusiastically endorsing it as a trip tool … because apparently I wander away from the group often? I’m not sure. In any case, Siri took a backseat as our conversation shifted gears, but she’s apparently a new fixture in our relationship—it’s Siri, after all, who calls me and texts me now—so we’ll have plenty of time for her to get used to the idea that S has a wife.

Siri, it seems, is getting to know us as we are getting to know her. But she’s also doing something else: She’s helping iPhone users comfortably navigate the next step in our relationship with technology. It’s no secret we’re moving toward greater technological integration; it’s exciting, but it also takes work. Very few people are formally educated in the technology they use. While it seems that we have been moving inexorably forward, seamlessly adopting the latest technological trends and strategies, each adoption has happened in socially curated phases that are characterized by varying degrees of anxiety and excitement.

Siri is a personal assistant application for iOS developed by Siri, Inc., a spin-off from SRI International. Her roots can be traced to DARPA’s Perceptive Assistant That Learns (PAL) program and SRI International’s corresponding Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes (CALO) program. This heritage creates a powerfully intuitive platform that appears to reason, learn, and respond. In short, she does all the things that have tended to make us uncomfortable about getting close to technology. Siri is science fiction realized: she gives form to WALL-E’s Auto and I, Robot‘s VIKI—without the “protect humanity even if it means destroying the human race in the process because humans don’t really know what’s good for them” angle. Yet. (I mean, if she’s really intuitive, who knows what she might accomplish.)

So why does she work? We’re culturally primed not to trust programs that behave like AI, which ceased to be portrayed as innocent helpers around the time The Jetsons, our favorite tech savvy family, went off the air. This is where those socially curated phases I mentioned comes into play. The rise of social and mobile applications have primed us to be more open about our lives, more willing to share information, and more adept at transacting the business of daily life on-the-go. These things were difficult in their own way—location check-ins, for example, meant being willing to share where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re with. Gradually, the convenience of mobile banking or shopping replaced the concerns over privacy and security—that is to say, concerns were addressed in a way that was deemed acceptable to users. We’re comfortable. And we walk a fine line between independence and dependence. And perhaps we like it.

Siri does what we’ve been doing all along: she manages the business of daily life while we’re on-the-go. But she gives us the sense that someone else is involved—that someone else cares about the business of our daily life, which is a huge step toward the personalization and ownership of technology. The more comfortable we are, the easier the steps toward integration become, and the shorter the social curated transitional phases are. Siri makes the technology that we’re using to run our lives less distant and more accessible. She provides the illusion that someone else has it all under control. She knows—to a certain degree—even if we don’t. And she doesn’t lie (as far as I know), so when she doesn’t know, she’ll tell you so. And perhaps this makes her more trustworthy, and allows us to think of her less as a series of algorithms and logic sequences, and more as Siri.

And at the end of the day, Siri is not AI. She is extensively programmed and able to draw upon a vast ecosystem based on an array of queries. She is not an intelligent agent. She is not a free-thinking agent.* But in terms of the relationships we have with our smart devices, does this matter?


*Statement updated following this exchange.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. nwinarsky 10:01 pm 11/8/2011

    Your article is deeply insightful in describing how Siri helps us manage our business of daily life while we’re on the go, and providing us comfort and support as well. But I’m not sure what you mean by the phrase “Siri is not AI”. As a co-founder and board member of the company Siri, I can assure you that Siri was developed to understand the intent of a goal-based query, and to respond to the query with an answer or an action – not just a link. This understanding of the intent of a sentence is called “natural language understanding” or NLU, and is indeed considered a branch of the field of artificial intelligence.

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  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 11:48 pm 11/8/2011

    Hi Norman,

    Thanks for your comment, and for reminding us not to overlook the potential of NLU in the development of AI. I really think Siri represents an exciting, natural next step in our relationship with technology in that Siri does for us what we’ve grown accustomed to doing for ourselves—Siri seamlessly weaves together the different technological components (e.g., apps, databases, search engines) that we use in our daily life. Siri’s ability to recognize voice commands, store information from these dialogues, and subsequently generate a personalized experience for the user certainly hinges on the masterful application of NLU, which certainly is a branch of AI.

    However, what I meant when I said “Siri is not AI” is that Siri does not think for herself. (I’ll use the feminine pronoun here and acknowledge that I am personifying the program in that way because it’s hard not to think of her as a her—which I think is a huge credit to Siri’s development.) AI, by definition, is an intelligent machine. Siri is able to process information and suggest appropriate responses based on the information she has access to, but she does not spontaneously contribute to the discussion. Siri is not free thinking. As far as we know, Siri is not making decisions for the good of mankind. Siri can only respond to what we ask her to do. She will not pipe up and tell us that it will rain this afternoon and we should take our umbrellas—yet. I think that it’s possible Siri will get there, but for now, she draws on the databases she has access to in response to the queries posed to her.

    For example, if you ask Siri what 1+1 is, she responds by showing you data from Wolfram Alpha. If you ask Siri if it’s cold outside, she pulls up the local weather. (For the record, she told us that “It doesn’t appear to be cold,” and her assessment is correct for my location.) What is amazing is that she is able to process our questions and within seconds access the appropriate database and information set. In this regard, Siri certainly appears to be an early example of consumer-accessible AI.

    But, ask Siri if we should go to the beach this weekend and she tells us that she has found four local public beaches “a little ways” from us. Full AI, in my opinion, would be able to tell us that we either should or should not take this course of action.

    I acknowledge that Siri perhaps represents a more realistic look at the form AI will take as it becomes more prevalent to the consumer base. The beauty of Siri is that she draws from ever expanding knowledge bases rooted in the Cloud and the vast reaches of the Internet. As a result, Siri will evolve, and represents an important early step in consumer-adoptive technologies. And perhaps along the way, our definitions of what constitute AI will also change.

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  3. 3. nwinarsky 1:19 am 11/9/2011

    Hi Krystal,

    Well said. Siri is just the beginning of the revolution that puts virtual personal assistants into the hands of millions of people, and was brilliantly originally conceived by great entrepreneurs – Dag Kittlaus, Adam Cheyer, and Tom Gruber. Next generation virtual personal assistants are already being developed at SRI, and I am sure they are being developed at Apple as well. We hope to surprise and delight you :-) .

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  4. 4. BillNytheScienceGuy 7:47 pm 11/9/2011

    Great Article! Siri has definitely changed my life! I am still learning what “she” has to offer… I find new things every day. Kudos to Apple and SRI for combining their efforts and bring us great products in both iOS and Siri. The debate over whether Siri is true AI is very interesting… I seem to agree with points on both sides. What seemed to stand out the most for me is the last line in your response to Norman W where you state:
    “And perhaps along the way, our definitions of what constitute AI will also change”
    What we know to be classic AI has changed so much… and continues to change. As we continue to evolve technologies such as Siri and others like IBM Watson, we continue to redefine what AI means to us… that’s some deep stuff 

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  5. 5. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 10:39 am 11/10/2011

    Thanks Bill. I think that we’re going to have to reconcile the media depiction with AI with what will actually be possible, and programs like Siri and Watson are certainly paving the way. There are few limits in SciFi and I think that can sometimes hamper our ability to truly experience and enjoy the innovations we have in front of us. It will certainly be interesting to watch this unfold.

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