Siri: The Perfect Robot for Our Time

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

siribody.jpg

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 . 
mobot.jpg

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.
Presented by

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Technology

Just In