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Turing with Siri

Over sixty years ago, the computer scientist Alan Turing set the bar for artificial intelligence to the level of any interface where human interlocutors are unable to distinguish whether they are talking to a computer or to another person. “Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?" he asked. Perhaps in response, an iPhone owner recently mentioned to Siri that he wants to get an Android phone. She replied:

"I found 3 suicide prevention centers. Tap the one you want to call..."

Undoubtedly, this answer and many others are programmed. So where precisely does an accumulation of contextually-accurate rote responses differ from thoughtful communication?

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.

Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic

What (or who) is Siri?

Let’s start with the ‘what.’ According to iPhone Siri The Blog:

Siri is an intelligent software assistant and knowledge navigator functioning as a personal assistant application for iOS. The application uses a natural language user interface to answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions by delegating requests to a set of web services. Apple claims that the software adapts to the user’s individual preferences over time and personalizes results, as well as accomplishing tasks such as finding recommendations for nearby restaurants, or getting directions.

Where this story begins to get interesting is the depth of research behind the application. “With Siri, Apple is using the results of over 40 years of research funded by DARPA via SRI International’s Artificial Intelligence Center through the …Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes Program (CALO.)” You can learn more about Siri’s infancy in this video:

Watch this video at YouTube.

Siri may be the first successful large scale deployment of a natural language computer interface. “For example,” writes Brad Miser, “when you want to create a reminder, you simply say something like, “remind me to walk the dog.” Siri responds with a request for specifics such as “When you do you want to be reminded?” You respond with “today at 5 p.m.” Siri dutifully creates the reminder for you. This is just the beginning of Siri’s capabilities.

What can Siri do?

When you speak with Siri on your iPhone, Siri can:

  • Research and recommend a restaurant, and then book a table.
  • Look up a stock quote and discuss the stock’s performance.
  • Schedule an appointment for you.
  • Help you remember something by setting reminders.
  • Take dictation and send an email or text.
  • Provide a weather forecast or directions somewhere.

According to Yalim Gerger, “Siri eliminates the need for special training to use software. It throws away the mouse, the keyboard, the menus, the buttons, the tabs, the popup menus, the toolbars. It removes all the obstacles between your abilities and getting tasks done.” Moreover, the iPhone is described by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) as “the only fully accessible handset that a blind person can buy”.

Watch this video at YouTube.

PDAs Out; VPAs In

Where do styli go to die? Will our closets soon be filled with obsolete keyboards and dead mice? Matt Briney writes that:

Virtual Personal Assistants (VPAs) represent the next generation interaction paradigm for the Internet. In today’s paradigm, we follow links on search results. With a VPA, we interact by having a conversation. We tell the assistant what we want to do, and it applies multiple services and information sources to help accomplish our task. Like a real assistant, a VPA is personal; it uses information about an individual’s preferences and interaction history to help solve specific tasks, and it gets better with experience.

Although a virtual personal assistant may not possess what some consider true machine intelligence, Jordi Serra Del Pino feels that its “feasibility and acceptability may not even have to wait for the promised IBM computer with human brain capabilities, but rather build on a more friendly interaction with the Google search engine.

Watch this video at YouTube.

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.

Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic

With the advent of an interface that can process speech, engage in sophisticated data analysis and then act upon this data, our human relationship with the machines around us will undergo a profound metamorphosis. "The industry is waking up to the fact that speech and language processing can serve as a basic building block of your user interface," says Vlad Sejnoha, chief technology officer of Nuance, makers of the popular speech recognition software, Dragon Naturally Speaking."We're really at this point of renaissance that isn't the end; it's really just the beginning of what we can do with this."

Watch this video at YouTube.

Trust Your Secrets to Siri?

As you ponder whether your conversations with Siri are “real,” please bear in mind this contract suggesting that Siri may be sharing your deepest secrets with the iCloud. “By using Siri or Dictation, you agree and consent to Apple's and its subsidiaries' and agents' transmission, collection, maintenance, processing, and use of this information, including your voice input and User Data, to provide and improve Siri, Dictation, and other Apple products and services." Robert McMillan writes in Wired magazine that “Siri ships everything you say to her to a big data center in Maiden, North Carolina. And the story of what really happens to all of your Siri-launched searches, e-mail messages and inappropriate jokes is a bit of a black box.” Just a word of caution to Ellen Degeneres, Samuel Jackson, John Malkovich and to you.

Educational Implications

How will the traditional post-secondary educational system evolve when Siri is integrated in loco praeceptoris with a learning management system (LMS)? Would students even need to spend years learning tasks their computers could do for them, and be better off if they concentrated on higher cognitive level activities instead? “A writer doesn’t need to know how to use Word to write a story anymore. He just needs inspiration,” writes Yalim Gerger. “An architect does not need to waste time learning AutoCAD to design a building. She just needs to be creative. An executive does not need to wait a week for the IT department to produce him a new report. He just needs to be savvy enough to ask the right question.”

Apple’s ‘mainstreaming’ Artificial Intelligence in the form of a Virtual Personal Assistant is a groundbreaking event. I’d go so far as to say it is a World-Changing event. We’re talking another technology revolution. A new computing paradigm shift.

Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic

Watch this video at YouTube.

Yes, But Does it Pass the Turing Test?

Recently, when asked about the meaning of life, Siri replied, “I can't answer that now, but give me some time to write a very long play in which nothing happens.” If the litmus for machine intelligence is the quality of its human imitation, I’d say that was a pretty good imitation of someone Waiting for HAL 9000.<>