Siri, the personal assistant application in iOS 5, is one of the biggest game changers in software this year. And it’s going to change the rules of the game even more, according to the person who helped create the utility and put it in the hands of Apple.
Ed Wrenbeck, former lead developer of the Siri iPhone App explains
that the software residing on the iPhone’s Flash memory is just “the portal to the brains of Siri running on a bunch of servers.”
“There, it can take a sentence and dissect it naturally. An example might be ‘Book a table at Il Fornaio in Novi for 7PM’ and it determines that ‘Il Fornaio’ is likely the name of a place and ‘Novi’ is likely a location."
"This is referred to as natural language processing, and it is incredibly difficult to get right,” explains Wrenbeck.
But there’s a big difference between Siri and other assistants that can do voice recognition.
Wrenbeck continues with another example adding something else to the table booking: “Book at table at Il Fornaio at 7:00 with my mom.”
This is where Siri, unlike other assistant apps, “will maintain context so you could say: ‘Also send her an email reminder’,” he notes. “Siri will understand ‘her’ and compose the email accordingly.” Actress in Apple's Siri promotional video demonstrating the assistant's amazing capabilities of understanding a question spoken in a very relaxed manner, using non-typical terms: "Is it going to be chilly in San Francisco this weekend?"
Credits: Apple (full video here)
Although Wrenbeck himself has often been pleasantly surprised by just how human Siri felt using, the assistant is still basically just a contextual, semantic, personalized search engine, he says.
The developer says it might feel like AI (artificial intelligence) but that, in reality, it is not:
“We affectionately called it a ‘Do’ engine. A search engine can evaluate text strings and look for matching results. A ‘Do’ engine maintains awareness of the user and everything is knows about that user and processes strings in the context of the user.”
And that includes location data. Wrenbeck concludes with a neat example of his own experience with Siri:
“One time I happened to be in San Jose and, not thinking, tested Siri with this request and was delightfully pleased when it offered to help me get tickets to an upcoming game in San Francisco when the Tiger’s came to town in a couple of weeks.”
“That last item, behavior, is a biggie. It requires trust – which Siri got with Apple,” he says.
Since Siri requires a lot of trust collecting data, and since Apple has earned “a very high level of trust from its customers”, Wrenbeck believes no other company could have done Siri more justice than the one headquartered at 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, California.