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Monday, October 18, 2021

Column: Why so Siri-ous

“Will you marry me?” [Beep, beep, pause.] “Let’s just be friends, OK?”

‘Atta girl, Siri. In October, Apple debuted the latest in artificial intelligence, their sharp-witted Siri, as a headlining feature of the iPhone 4S. The voice-recognition software was released in beta, of course, because technology meant to mimic human behavior is bound to fall short of expectations. Siri is supposed to do everything a personal assistant would, like schedule lunch dates, set timers, jot down reminders, send a text or make calls. She’s certainly willing, but she isn’t very capable.

On Amtrak, I overheard this Siri conversation: “Will it rain?” “Do you mean ‘Will Rentay’?” “No. WILL. IT. RAIN.”

I find most people talk to their Siris this way, the same way most American tourists speak to non-English-speaking nationals — at snail pace and near-shouting volume. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of that kind of speech, you know that the “loud and slow” approach doesn’t actually improve your comprehension of an unfamiliar language. The same goes for Siri.

In my experience, Siri takes too long to respond to my commands and doesn’t get it right when I need her, rendering the feature useless. The product is rough around the edges, which is completely out of character for a company as detail-obsessed as Apple. You’d think Apple would keep this beta app behind the scenes, under wraps, or in development (where it belongs) until it has been perfected. Yet, Siri continues to appear at the forefront in the company’s national TV ad campaign, which airs at least twice during “Modern Family.” On Apple’s website, Siri stands alongside two substantial developments — a dual-core A5 chip and a high-def camera — that make the 4S “the most amazing iPhone yet.”

But I am so disappointed by Siri’s performance because she’s not polished in the way I have come to expect from Apple products. Apple continues to tout Siri as one of its most revolutionary features, even though she doesn’t seem to work. So, Apple, why so serious about Siri?

My first hunch is Apple’s eye on things to come. The future of computing, at least according to “The Jetsons,” Star Wars/Trek and Smart House (you know, the Disney Channel movie), involves more human sensory experience. We will engage with technology less through keyboards and mice, and more through touch, motion and speech. Apple has perfected the touchscreen and produced the best tablet in the industry, the iPad, so touch is already under the company’s belt. So, I suppose, on to something new: speech.

Apple’s foray into the realm of voice recognition is not surprising. Visions of the future suggest that we will be able to tell our ovens, “Pre-heat to 375 degrees” and tell our showers, “Heat up my water just the way I like it.” But this kind of technology, at least for now, only exists in galaxies far, far away. This may be why Apple has been pushing Siri on their most popular product, the iPhone (37 million units sold last quarter). When people use Siri, Apple collects data — people speaking in different languages, in different accents, with different jargon — so that the service will improve over time.

Every time you ask Siri a question, the program turns your speech into text and sends that text to Apple servers. Then Siri’s response is sent back to your phone. Even seemingly useless questions like, “What is the meaning of life?” have serious implications for the research and development of integration with future products. The more people use Siri, the more data goes into the servers, the better she gets.

And Apple certainly hopes to be the best, as it does with all its products. Siri is said to be the main attraction of the long-rumored Apple television set, which is expected to be the first TV that thinks the way you do. Say “ESPN” and you’re already there.

Siri, as she is now, is too slow for what we’ve come to expect from our phones. But maybe we’ll take her more Siri-ously once she’s in our ovens, showers and TVs.

This column nearly went unfinished because Siri forgot to e-mail NICOLE NGUYEN at niknguyen@ucdavis.edu, reminding her that it was due.

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