Apple iPhone 4S gets smart, talks back

What many smart-phone users were expecting to be the iPhone 5 was unveiled Oct. 4 as the iPhone 4S at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.

Whatever the name, its most significant feature is the Siri personal assistant software, now a talking, interactive feature on the phone that combines voice recognition with artificial intelligence to create a kind of handheld HAL 9000 effect.

During the on-stage demonstration of the 4S, Apple vice president Scott Forstall asked the phone, “Who are you?” Siri replied, “I am a humble personal assistant."

The New York Times' Sam Grobart, who was blogging from the demo, concluded: “That's just chilling.”

At other points during the demonstration, Siri, in response to verbal questions, responded with the day’s weather forecast, the time in Paris, whether Forstall had a meeting that day, and the definition of mitosis, Grobart reported. The latter response was a result of Apple’s link with the Wolfram Alpha computational engine, which supplies data to Siri.

Apple apparently has big plans for Siri, which it acquired in 2010. In an interview with the site 9to5Mac posted Oct. 3, Siri co-founder Norman Winarsky said he wasn’t sure what Apple would do with the Siri app, but he expects it to have a big impact.

“Apple’s ‘mainstreaming’ artificial intelligence in the form of a virtual personal assistant is a groundbreaking event,” Winarsky told 9to5Mac. “I’d go so far as to say it is a world-changing event.”

He expected Siri to go further than what he called partially AI-enabled apps such as Google Voice Actions, Vlingo or Nuance Go. “This is real AI with real market use,” he said.

In addition to providing information verbally, Siri will learn a user’s likes and dislikes, whether concerning search results, restaurants in an unfamiliar city or people he or she like to talk with and personalize its results, reports Ben Parr in Mashable.

Siri, which is starting out as a beta, initially supports English, French and German.

Whether Siri has the kind of impact Winarsky expects remains to be seen, of course, but it does continue a trend toward interactive, learning, voice-readable computing. Google has put voice-recognition features into its Android operating system and IBM’s Watson is blazing new paths in natural-language processing. It might be only a matter of time before that sci-fi favorite — the talking, thinking computer — becomes commonplace.

As for other details on the 4S, it can be pre-ordered starting Oct. 7, with general availability on Oct. 14. It’s priced at $199 for a 16G model, $299 for 32G and $399 for 64G. It will be available on the AT&T, Verizon and Sprint networks.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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