Siri: The Perfect Robot for Our Time

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Siri combines the human-helper visions of previous decades with the new information organizing bots of recent times

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Apple's latest trick will debut this week: a voice-driven artificial intelligence system created with DARPA funds and integrated into the company's newest, the iPhone 4S. Apple calls it Siri, and if the hype holds up, the software will be the biggest deployment of human-like AI the world has seen.

Siri is aware of locations and can remind you of things in particular places. Siri can call cabs for you and bring up restaurants. Siri can take dictations for emails and text. You communicate with Siri with your voice, nothing more.

For literally thousands of years, humans have dreamed of talking to our creations in the natural language that defines being human. From the sculptures of Egypt through Frankenstein to the eager-to-please robots of the 1950s, the talking automaton has been a persistent dream. But while talking robots have been fairly easy to create, listening robots have eluded us until now.

Siri, though, seems as close to a general-purpose virtual assistant as anybody has come. Reviews have been very strong. "It's kind of like having the unpaid intern of my dreams at my beck and call, organizing my life for me," Wired's Brian Chen wrote. "I think Siri on the iPhone is a life changer, and this is only the beginning."

The difference between Siri and what came before is massive amounts of data. Data allowed the construction of algorithms that decipher voice. Data on the Internet allows Siri to have a lot more situational awareness than it would have had in the past. Data about your location massively increases the usefulness of anything an assistant could offer. You can tell a lot about an era by its visions of automata. In our time, this is what a robot looks like: a friendly, disembodied front-end to personal and public data that's good at listening.

It wasn't always this way. For most of humanity's existence, automaton creators wanted to make human-like bodies. Take, Elektro, "Westinghouse's Moto Man," presented at the 1939 World's Fair. "You see, all I need to do is speak into this phone and Elektro does exactly what I tell him to do," the presenter says.

Later, the Hughes Aircraft Mobot Mark II had gotten a little bit more sophisticated. It was less blocky and less humanoid, but what it sacrificed in Homo sapiens replication, it gained in actual usability. Those arms could do stuff! The robot paradigm here was as human helper in humanoid form: Rosie the Robot . 
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In reality, almost all the actual robots now manufactured bear little resemblance to humans. Instead, they are specially designed for their uses in manufacturing or logistics.

Of course, the dream of making humanoid robots has not gone away. Honda's Asimo gets billed as the most advanced humanoid robot in the world. And MIT's Media Lab continues work on robot faces that allow for greater range of expression of programmed emotions.

But increasingly, we want automatons to do something else. We want them to organize information, not the material world. We don't recognize it as such, but Google's automatons give me the weather when I type, "Washington DC, weather." Or the iPhone app Alfred provides personalized recommendations based on asking me conversation questions. These are front-ends to information that's been massaged by artificial intelligence.

The genius of Siri is to combine the new type of information bot with the old type of human-helper bot. Instead of patterning Siri on a humanoid body, Apple used a human archetype -- the secretary or assistant. To do so, Apple gave Siri a voice and a set of skills that seem designed to make everyone feel like Don Draper. Siri listens to you and does what you say. "Take this down, Siri... Remind me to buy Helena flowers!" And if early reviews are any indication, the disembodied robot could be the next big thing in how we interact with our computers.


Top image: AP.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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