Thursday, March 08, 2012

Let's Get Siri-ous


After years as a died-in-the-wool PC-only guy, I finally experienced the Apple revolution in my life this year, wholly through circumstances beyond my control. (Work bestowed upon me an iPhone4S ... since I lost my Android at the Newark Airport ... and then an iPad2. They then gave me a MacBook Pro and instructed me to use it to build a media display system. So I really had no choice.)

But I confess I have thoroughly enjoyed my induction into the halls of Appledom. These are amazing devices that are changing the communications landscape at a phenomenal rate. And since using them I have felt empowered to do things I have never done before ... or at least to do some old things in a new way.

For example: This week I have been locked in my house with my devices. Again, through no fault of my own. I am one of those rare birds who contracted Influenza-A despite being vaccinated against it ... twice. The first two days I could barely lift my head off the pillow, let alone carry on a sentient conversation with Siri (the iPhone4S' intelligent voice agent). But after the fever broke and boredom began to set in, I started playing with my new toys.

I admit Siri intrigues me (she provides some truly creative answers to the weirdest questions you can think of ... for instance, try asking her what her favorite color is), and so I began to wonder if others were feeling affected by her nonhuman presence in the same way I was. Thus I did a web search on the words "Siri" and "relationship." One of the results that caught my eye was this article in Scoopertino: "Apple introduces Siri Pro: For serious Siri lovers."

I'll let you read the article, but before you get too far I should warn you about their tagline: "All the news that's fit to fabricate." So I'm not sure what in this article we can believe, and what not; but one thing I actually wouldn't be surprised were accurate is this statement: "Over 65% of the questions and commands put to Siri by iPhone 4S owners indicate the user’s desire for a deeper bond." Boys will be boys (with their toys).

So, I began to wonder ... rather than use my new iPhone4S to strengthen my relationship with a robot, are there ways I could use it to strengthen my real relationship, with my real, flesh-and-blood wife? Hmmm. And suddenly, the light went on and I got an idea ...

(Conversation with Siri ensues ...)

ME: "Siri, please tell my wife I love her."

SIRI: "I can help you with that. But first, I need to know who you are."

Now that was an eye-opener. I've been talking to Siri for several months now, and apparently she doesn't even know who I am yet! Wow. At least Darlene took the trouble to memorize my name before our first date.

So, Siri proceeded to tell me how to go into my iPhone settings, the Siri module, and identify myself as the owner of my iPhone. (Which I'm sure will probably get me on somebody's marketing or spyware list. But oh well, it wouldn't be the first time.)

Once that was accomplished, maybe five minutes later, I started over:

ME: "Siri, please tell my wife I love her."

SIRI: "I can help you with that. But first, I need to know who your wife is."

Seriously, Siri? You are one smart computer. Aren't you smart enough just to go digging into my Facebook profile, see that my spouse is listed there as Darlene Short, compare that information with my address book and pull her up without further adieu? Apparently not.

But naturally, Siri told me how I could quite easily now go and click on my wife's name in my iPhone address book. And so I did so. Five minutes later, I was sure she now knew who my wife was. So I started over, a third time:

ME: "Siri, please tell my wife I love her."

SIRI: "I can help you with that. I am prepared to send the following message to Darlene Short:

Message from Larry Short: "I love her."

Insert here a moment of panic, stabbing of buttons, desperately trying to stop this heartless silicon ghost from sending my wife a message informing her coldly that I have given my heart, after 33 years of marriage, to a mindless machine.

Thankfully I was able to stop the message, delete it, and start over again. A fourth time:

ME: "Siri, please tell my wife I love you ..."

... but suddenly I stop, a chill of suspicion running down my spine. That just sounds oh so wrong. "Siri, please tell my wife I love you." How can I be sure Siri won't send the following message:

Message from Larry Short:
He wanted you to know that he really loves me.
You don't even hold a candle to my gigahertz processors, baby.
Why not pack it in right now?

I think that no matter how far we come, it's going to be hard (after HAL9000 and SkyNet) to ever truly trust an artificial intelligence again.

But, after a half hour of trying, I decided my investment was too much not to take the risk. With voice trembling, I authorized the transmission of the message: "OK, Siri. Send it."

Fast forward to dinner out, last night, our favorite Mexican restaurant. I waited patiently, but Darlene made no mention of any message.

So, dying of curiosity, I finally brought it up: "Did you get a message from me today?"

"Sure," she said nonchalantly.

"What did it say?" I asked. At this point she gave me a quizzical look.

"I love you."

Huge sigh of relief.

"So," I continued, as she picked at her tostada. "What did you think about that?"

"I can tell you in a moment," she replied thoughtfully. "But first, I need to know who you are."


Dave said...

Very funny piece Larry, I laughed when I thought of the jaw dropping look on your face had Darlene actually said those last words. Siri reminds me of an AI program my daughter and I used to play with on the internet called “Cleverbot”. It was a lot of fun to have a silly conversation with it. Hope you are getting better from your influenza.

Larry Short said...

Thanks David! I'm not 100% yet, but I am feeling a lot better.

Back when I used a CP/M machine (before the 16-bit DOS machines gained popularity) we used to interact with an "artificial intelligence" program called "Eliza." Of course, no voice recognition, you just typed in your comments. But Eliza could carry on a fairly convincing conversation!

Pretty soon no doubt they'll have good conversational bots and we human beings won't even have to talk to each other if we don't want to!