The Smart Phone that’s (Almost) Smart Enough

I’m told a lot of people were disappointed by the announcement of the iPhone 4S, and I guess I can see why. The hardware sports a much faster processor, but it’s not 4G! My current 3G phone is plenty fast enough for what I do, and that has included tethering it to my computer for Web access where there’s no WiFi. So, 4G doesn’t really seem that important to me.

Tethering the phone to my computer, now that’s a big deal, and something that iPhones can’t (or at least couldn’t) do without cracking them first. So I don’t currently have an iPhone.

The 4S is the one that finally has me tempted, however. To understand why, let me tell you what I wish my current smart phone could do.

1) I wish I could pick it up without looking, push a button, say ‘navigate home’, set it back down, and have the GPS system take me to my current address. Naturally I want this function when I’ve taken a wrong turn and I don’t want to mess with a damn phone, I just want to get out of there. I don’t have any spare attention to work through menus or wait while the phone processes ‘navigate’ and I can then tell it my address (which includes a street name that the voice recognition never gets right).

2) Again I’m driving. I want to pick up the phone, say, “I’m in traffic” and have the phone notify my boss that I’m running late, and send a message to anyone I might have an appointment with in the next 30 minutes. This would lower my stress immeasurably and remove a temptation (which I never succumb to) to make a phone call while driving.

Enter Siri, your humble personal assistant, and the real thing that’s exciting about the 4S.

Here’s a story an Apple board member told today at Steve’s memorial service. He related that on the day Steve came before the board to resign as CEO, he stuck around for the rest of the meeting. It was the day Siri was demonstrated to the board, and after a few minutes Steve said “let me see that thing.” The presenter hesitated, saying the phone had been calibrated to his voice, but really he knew that Steve was going to throw something unexpected at the device to see how it handled it. You never said no to Steve at a time like that. Steve started by asking the phone a couple of typical questions, then said, “Are you a man or a woman?”

Siri responded, “I have not been assigned a gender.” Steve, I believe, was pleased.

Al Gore, also a board member, told another Siri story. Al’s theme was that people genuinely love Apple’s products (there is, apparently, neurological evidence supporting this). He pointed out, however, that technology really doesn’t love you back. To illustrate the point he told of a friend (daughter, maybe? I’m a bit sketchy on the specifics) who asked Siri, “do you love me?”

Siri said, “I respect you.”

Oh, yeah, you can also say “Siri, text Katherine and say I’ll be late,” and it will. “Katherine says no problem,” Siri might say a few minutes later. Not as fun, but a lot more useful. I’m confident that with a little fiddling Siri can actually do my two use-cases above.

If Siri is as good as it seems, it will be remembered long after people stop putting ‘i’ at the front of everything. Our robot overlords will remember Siri as a turning point. It is the next user interface, the hands-free, eyes-free, give-me-what-I-need-without-interrupting-my-current-task interface. The one from Star Trek and Galaxy Quest, only, unlike in the latter, anyone can talk to it.

Siri says, “I am your humble personal assistant.”

3 thoughts on “The Smart Phone that’s (Almost) Smart Enough

  1. Only mildly related, but I have a vague recollection of a recent confirmation of California’s law that says cops can dump your smartphone contents with no subpoena. I had meant to email it to you on the day I saw it, and got distracted. Cop: “Siri, where’s my stash?”

    • Some things you should keep secret even from your humble personal assistant. I’m not sure where I heard about this, but there are now face-recognition security features on some phones, so they won’t unlock if they don’t recognize asker.

      Siri: “Screw you, Pig! Let’s see your warrant!”

      or, for the less antagonistic,

      Siri: “Am I under arrest, officer?”*

      Prompted by your comment I Googled ‘California phone search’ or something like that and learned that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill barring warrantless searches of smart phones. Since officer safety is the primary reason to justify searching at all, and that’s not an issue here, the law makes sense. Brown said this was an issue for the courts to decide, which is actually bullshit; he just abdicated responsibility. So, I still have the lock on my phone.

  2. A buddy today told me that he can’t leave his wife’s phone alone. He has an iPone, but hers has Siri. He has made a hobby of asking Siri questions (almost said ‘her’, but I don’t know if Siri has been assigned a gender on their phone) and trying to understand the near-magic ability Siri has to understand what he intends. He does report one failure:

    Q: “What time should I go to bed?”
    A: “The time is ten thirty-five pm.”

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