NOW WE truly know the difference between Apple and IBM. When IBM creates a computer that can understand natural language, it sends it onto “Jeopardy!’’ to beat a pair of humans, unleashing a wave of anti-technology dread. When Apple puts a talking computer in the market, it makes it as disarming - and slyly subservient - as possible.
That’s the early word on Siri, the talking voice-recognition system on the newfangled iPhone 4S. It’s a tool for getting restaurant listings and sending text messages, sure. But it’s also a personality, and a particular one. Siri may be speak in a bland female voice (it’s male in the UK, which means focus groups must have come up with some interesting data). But the technology turns your iPhone into a butler from a “Batman’’ movie: a good-natured, resourceful servant who tolerates your lame attempts at cleverness.
So far, there has been plenty to tolerate. If someone were to probe the essential nature of the human race, the reaction to Siri would be exhibit A: Humans get hands on astounding new technology, and immediately pour their energy into trying to trip it up with questions about sex, drugs, and existentialism. Over the past week, a stream of people have gone online to post their discoveries of embedded Siri humor, many of them less-family friendly than this:
User: I love you Siri.
Siri: Oh, I bet you say that to all your Apple products.
User: Who’s your daddy?
Siri: You are. Can we get back to work now?
User: You’re cool.
Siri: That is correct. I use advanced heat dissipation techniques.
Of course, Siri also makes wisecracks about “Star Trek,’’ “2001’’ and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’’ It - she? - is an early-adopter’s dream come true, proof that geeks still rule the world and probably deserve to.
Which particular geeks are responsible for Siri’s personality is a mystery. A California company, bought by Apple last year, first developed the voice-recognition personal assistant. The core technology apparently came from a Burlington-based company called Nuance. But the programmers aren’t talking now; Siri has been swept into the monolithic culture of Apple, and stands as further proof of why Steve Jobs was so successful. His company didn’t put out another talking tool. It put out an Apple-branded, talking Thing To Love.
This is a tremendous development, as talking robots go. Watson, IBM’s “Jeopardy!’’-bot, wasn’t lovable in the least. (It had the maddening calm of an inanimate object, and its jokes were like a toddler’s: accidental.) The lady on your GPS gives nothing back; if you tell her to go jump in a lake, she probably will, and bring you down with her. The voice in a corporate phone-mail system seems designed to make you crave human contact - even if the human is a half-competent receptionist with a serious case of ennui.
But talking to Siri is a pleasant experience, even when she errs; She’s here to serve, with no particular ambition to do more. She’s less like the Cylons in “Battlestar Galactica’’ than like Rosie, the maid from “The Jetsons.’’ And if she becomes our friend- or, worse, our enabler - I wonder if humanity is really in trouble.
It’s nice to have emotional distance from technology, to know it as a tool and not a pal, to understand, on some deep level, that the GPS lady isn’t doing you any favors. Siri, on the other hand, could turn us into narcissists. She makes us feel important, which makes us more dependent.
Yes, voice recognition is a useful tool. At the least, it could help alleviate that whole texting-while-driving problem. But the world already has too many people on Bluetooths, carrying on one-sided conversations. What will happen if every schmo on the street starts chatting with his smart-aleck cellphone? If searching becomes so easy and appealing that we spend even less time talking to people? Does Siri have the power to make us forget that we’re still smarter than our phones?