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Written by my college roommate, Steve Tobak (sophomore year at SUNY at Stony Brook). The article is at http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505125_162-57341019/inside-siri-apples-game-changing-technology/
(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY In 1966, a science fiction TV show called "Star Trek" debuted with a talking computer that could understand and respond to voice commands. Two decades later, the Japanese Ministry of Science and Technology started an initiative called Sixth-Generation Computing to integrate artificial intelligence into the man-machine interface.
For a half-century, the concept of communicating with computers as effortlessly as we do with each other has remained as elusive as it is captivating. That is, until October of this year, when the technology that will change our lives in ways we've always dreamed somehow managed to sneak under the radar in a smartphone upgrade.
That technology is Siri, the eerily human-sounding interface in the iPhone 4S. Apple calls Siri "The intelligent assistant that helps you get things done. All you have to do is ask."
Beneath that innocent-sounding marketing blurb, however, is a remarkable innovation that took two dozen of America's greatest research institutions more than 40 years to develop. The current version of Siri represents the first stage of a breakthrough in the field of artificial intelligence -- the study and design of intelligent systems that perceive and act on their environment.
The second stage, according to various reports, is Apple's plan to revolutionize the way we view and interact with broadcast and online video by using Siri as the interface for its up-coming integrated television set. And that's just the tip of the iceberg for what a relatively seamless man-machine interface can do.
Breakthroughs like Tivo, the iPod, smartphones, 3-D TV, even Apple's venerable iPad, will pale in comparison. Like the "One Ring" from Tolkien's famous trilogy, the technology in Siri will control them all in a way that finally makes technology work for us, instead of the other way around.
In the winter of 1976, a cross-country trip with my college roommate and his brother took a fateful turn when we visited their uncle, Jim Bair, a senior scientist at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI) in Menlo Park, Calif. Bair demonstrated a computer mouse and graphical user interface for us, an event that inspired me to change majors and eventually led to a career in the high-tech industry.
Steve Jobs saw a similar demo three years later at Xerox PARC and he famously integrated the technology into the Apple Lisa and then the Macintosh.
SRI has a long history of breakthrough innovations in fields as diverse as computing, communications, medicine, robotics and broadcasting. Its scientists invented automatic check processing and the computer mouse and co-developed the HDTV standard. The first transmission on the Internet's predecessor, the ARPANET, was sent from UCLA to SRI, and the company was the sole assigner of Internet domain names for many years.
SRI has also been a focal point for the development and commercialization of speech recognition and artificial intelligence technology. Both Siri and Nuance -- the world leader in speech recognition technology -- were spinoffs from SRI. So it comes as no surprise that Siri uses Nuance's voice recognition technology, although Apple and Nuance are pretty tight-lipped about that.
What makes Nuance and Siri unique aren't just that they were founded at SRI. Both companies represent the world's foremost center of knowledge and intellectual property in their respective domains of expertise. I wouldn't call them monopolies, but they're pretty darn close.
Nuance is actually an aggregate of more than 40 companies, including the original Nuance, as well as ScanSoft, Lernout & Hauspie, Berkeley Speech Technologies and Dragon Systems -- the original developer of the popular dictation software. Most of the speech recognition technology you come into contact with -- when interacting with customer support and call centers, for example -- comes from Nuance.
Likewise, Siri's technology represents decades of combined research on artificial intelligence from more than 20 universities, including Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Yale. It's a spinoff of SRI's Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes (CALO) project that was originally funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under its Perceptive Assistant that Learns (PAL) program.
Apple quietly acquired Siri in April of last year and negotiated a deal with Nuance earlier this year. The competitive advantage that Apple derives from owning Siri and its arrangement with Nuance explains why the notoriously secretive company is characteristically quiet on the subject. Nevertheless, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see where all this is leading.
When Apple launched the iPhone 4S in October, the media called it "underwhelming." I guess folks were expecting an iPhone 5. And while Apple's primary contribution has always been technology that works so simply, elegantly and seamlessly that you don't even notice it, we're all still trained to look for shiny new objects to play with.
Moreover, we've all become used to speech recognition technology; a computer voice responding to requests seemed like nothing new. So few recognized Siri for the breakthrough it is and the game-changing potential it represents. Then the iPhone 4S started breaking all sorts of sales records as folks engaged with Siri and became enthralled with what it can do.
And yet, what's special about artificial intelligence is its ability to learn, not just by getting to know what you mean instead of what you literally say, but also by getting to know the ins and outs of different applications on its resident system. Not to be hyperbolic here, but the truth is that the near-term potential for Siri and technology like it is virtually limitless.
Imagine your family sitting in all their favorite living room chairs and couches. There's not a remote control in site.
You say, "Siri, let's see what's on prime-time TV tonight."
Your TV, video recorder and audio receiver all come out of sleep mode, a list of your favorite programs is displayed on the screen, and Siri says, "Here are your favorites."
"Siri, have we watched last Monday night's 'Hawaii Five-0' yet?"
"No, but it is recorded. Would you like to watch it now?"
"Yes, but first, please make sure you're recording all new episodes of 'The Mentalist,' okay?"
With Siri in your car, you can ask where the nearest Starbuck's is, have it message someone to meet you there, let you know if and when you receive a response, and have it direct the navigation system to guide you. Then you can ask Siri to find out if it's supposed to rain that afternoon and then tune to the Howard Stern channel.
Instead of having to figure out exactly the right search terms and words, only to wade through pages and pages of stuff you weren't looking for, Siri has the potential to make system and Internet search far more effective and productive.
Today, we're all expert with keyboards. Tomorrow, some of our children and probably all of their children will become adept at dictation. The man-machine interface will have evolved from typing commands to graphical navigation to natural communication. In most of our lifetimes, we'll engage with machines more or less the way we engage with each other.
For decades we've been bombarded with innovations and gadgets that have both enriched our lives and made them far more complicated -- and overloaded with information, communications, remote controls and user manuals. Finally, we're seeing a glimpse of something intuitive, intelligent and capable of understanding what we want to do and, more importantly, going out and doing it.
With advances in artificial intelligence, speech recognition, sensor technology, robotics, and transparent, flexible touch panels, we're finally on the threshold of a new age of innovation, an age where the complex becomes simple and technology actually saves us time and effort instead of occupying us for its own sake.
For many of us, it's been a long time coming, to say the least. But for Siri, it's just the beginning. In case you're wondering what Siri has to make of all this, so was I.
So I asked, "Where do we go from here, Siri?"
Siri replied, "I can't say."
Can't or won't? You've got to wonder.
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