Beam me up, Siri! The phone tool from the future is here...
Steve Jobs' last gift to mankind before he passed away was a glimpse of the future. Unveiled just 24 hours prior to the Apple founder's death from cancer, the latest iPhone is equipped with a digital assistant named Siri. In techie speak, Siri is a "knowledge navigator" -- most of us would call it a computer you can talk to, like they used to on Star Trek.
Ask your iPhone 4S to set your alarm for 7.30 tomorrow morning and it will. Ask it to remind you later in the evening about an appointment and it takes care of that too. You can even tell it to text your wife saying you'll be home late. That's only slightly less amazing than Jean-Luc Picard ordering the Enterprise computer to fix him a mug of Earl Grey.
"I remember an episode of Star Trek where one of the characters requested the computer to 'Play some Jazz'," says blogger Thomas Fitzgerald. "That was 20 years ago when CDs were still relatively new. Now, 20 years later and I can issue the same command to my phone."
What truly sets Siri apart from other experimental technologies is its ability to learn on the job. Connected to Apple's 'cloud' supercomputer, Siri's database of knowledge is always growing. The more people use her, the smarter she gets.
"Because it is server-based, it can be constantly evolving," says Fitzgerald. "Unlike systems that are coded on to an individual device or computer, you don't have to wait for software updates to reap the benefits of improvements to the service. As Siri learns, that learning is passed on to all users."
Some have categorised Siri as a gimmick, pointing out that Apple has a history of putting out 'revolutionary' technologies that ultimately impress no one.
"I think what we are seeing now is a gimmick, to be honest," says technology expert Pat Phelan. "Siri was used as a unique point to sell the device and if I look at the four people using 4S [in my office] it is unused. It reminds me of Facetime, again used to market but unused in reality. I think there is something in there. It's a couple of years away."
"I think we are definitely going to see a lot more voice-interfaces in the future, and that Siri will no doubt be part of that landscape," says Olivia Solon, associate editor of the UK edition of Wired magazine.
"However, as you may have seen from the endless streams of 'Siri says' jokes, the technology and AI behind it still has a way to go. The dream is having a system that fully understands natural language, but I think that's a long way off."
If Siri doesn't change our lives, runs the consensus, maybe its offspring will. There is speculation Apple is road-testing its voice-recognition software with more ambitious uses in mind.
Imagine a desktop computer that calls up your favourite website on command? Or, better yet, an Apple TV home entertainment system that switches channel on your instruction.
"I don't believe Apple just tries things like Siri willy-nilly," says Mike Isaac, a staff writer at Wired in the US.
"Siri is in its early stages. I assume that as Siri matures and gets better with the number of iPhone 4S users essentially 'testing' it now, it'll be more of a viable option to bring the technology to other products."