Saturday, September 8, 2012

Back to the Future

Hey, I have moved away from talking about technology recently, and while I'd like to shift focus a little bit, I want this post in particular to be accessible, and for anyone to be able to read and understand my point.

She is only trying to help.
The topic of this post is going to be artificial intelligence, and it's usefulness in everyday life. Without realizing it, most of us use computers which have been fed incredible amounts of data each and every day. These computers, which we only see in the form of the information they give us, provide information to us which relates to our lives in almost every conceivable way. It doesn't matter whether you are googling a tidbit of information, looking for directions from a GPS unit or mapping service, checking Facebook to see what people you don't really talk to much are up to these days, or, in the example I'm going to focus on, asking a voice-controlled, disembodied robot that lives in your phone about the weather. Using any and all of these online services requires a ton going on behind the scene. However, that is not the focus of what I would like to discuss today. Everybody has misgivings about voice control technology, about how it is well behind what it should, or could be in 2012. However, in using Siri (my example since I do not have an Android device on hand), most everyone I speak to says they don't really use it that frequently because of how often it fails them, and it ends up wasting time. I'd like to pull back the curtain a little bit and try to explain how this type of voice service actually works, and how you can use it more to your advantage.

Seems creepy, but if that's what you want,
it's available.
The fact is, most people have no idea what their technology is capable of. It really can only do what a programmer or engineer has designed it to do, and will never be capable of anything more. People ridicule Siri for being unable to, for example, turn off radios like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. While they may have a point, this is not a failure of the technology. It may (read:probably will) at some point in the near future support those features, but currently simply is not set up to perform those tasks. You would never type "Mom's house" into Google Maps and expect it to find your address and locate your childhood home, because that would be incredibly creepy. But the fact is, a Google software engineer could certainly program that functionality into Maps pretty easily, but only if you have your mom as a contact in Gmail, and then only if your home address was assigned to her. Conversely, Siri is perfectly capable of finding your mom's address when asked, and taking you there on a map with one tap.


I find that Siri's most useful functionality is when you are trying to store some information with multiple, sometimes nested parameters. The examples I use most frequently are: setting alarms, timers, noting appointments and setting myself reminders. These are all tasks that would require at least a minute, even if you are well versed in using Apple products, just because there are many parameters that are required before your phone will actually remember all the information that is required. However, when using your voice, it becomes child's play to set up a meeting, because you can just say one phrase containing all that information, and Siri will parse it for you, and generally speaking, if you know how she listens, will be perfect almost all of the time. When Siri fails me, it is almost always a failing in my speech, or a case of mumbling.
Siri will even help you get a job!

Another common issue I have with Siri is that I will end up having trouble connecting to the network, and she will ask me to make a request again. While Siri has gone offline in the past on Apple's end, I find that generally when this happens it is because I'm walking away from my apartment, and therefore I end up in a dead zone where I have very weak Wi-Fi from home, but haven't moved onto 3G yet. I now avoid doing this, and never have this connectivity issue. Again, these are problems that Apple can, and surely is, fixing, but they are certainly not failings of the technology itself, if you know what to look for. With the newest version of iOS, version 6, you can actually make reservations at restaurants with your voice, or check movie times, or post to social networks. All of these things make different small aspects of our lives just a little bit simpler, and it is definitely a step in the right direction.

Finally, the thing that people complain about most with regards to Siri specifically, is that sometimes when trying to find information, she is "unable" to do so and defaults to asking if you would like to search the web for the information you requested. Considering that this is all that most other voice systems are capable of doing, Siri is light-years ahead of it's time. All that is required to make Siri work seamlessly is when you are doing a voice search, add the words "Search for..." at the beginning of your query, and she will go straight to a web search which will more than likely provide you with the information you are looking for. Siri is not a search engine.

One Direction, they're
alright...
With the announcement of the next iPhone scheduled for Wednesday, September 12th, also bringing updates to everyone who uses Siri, with the public release of iOS 6, I hope that people will take this information to heart and use internet services the way they were meant to be used, as opposed to complaining that they don't work in ways they were never meant to.

I hope you all enjoyed learning a little more about Siri with me, you can see now why we're such good friends.