The First Lady of Star Trek was Majel Barrett, creator Gene Roddenberry’s wife, who played nurse Christine Chapel in the original Star Trek, and Lwaxana Troi in both Star Trek TNG, and Star Trek DS9, and perhaps more memorably, the voice of the onboard computer system. Siri is Apple’s voice and button activated interface, officially the intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Apple TV.
Voice. That’s the interface of the future, and it’s both here now and a long way off.
Apple introduced Siri way back in the dark ages of iPhone 4s in 2011. What is it? One human year equals seven years of technology? Maybe that’s dog years. But it’s about the same. Siri is coming of age and it’s about time.
Siri-like voice controls have been around for decades but just recently entered the mainstream, thanks to the massive growth of mobile devices. Similar functionality is available from Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and even Amazon, all on a variety of devices. While desktop PCs (and Macs) are mostly point and click, and smartphones and tablets are point and touch, mobile devices need something more personal. That’s where voice recognition becomes the next step forward in device interfaces.
If you haven’t used Siri recently, try it out. Siri’s voice recognition has improved immensely the past year or two, and Apple has integrated more commands, actions, and usefulness into the technology through upgrades to iOS, watchOS, and even tvOS; enough so that I’m willing to say that a Siri-like voice interface is the interface of the near future.
Amazon’s Alexa, the resident interface in Amazon Echo, works quite well, and isn’t even a mobile device. For whatever reason, Siri has yet to see integration into OS X, but that may be more of a social than technology issue. It’s one thing to talk into a handheld phone and ask questions, but it’s something else again to talk into computer while staring into a screen.
Regardless, voice technology has improved rapidly, has become more integrated into our technology lives, and it’s here to stay.
As much as Majel Barrett’s Lwaxana Troi was a character, the Star Trek computer was not. Therein lies the difference between old generation computers with voice interface technology, and mobile devices. Siri has character sometimes displayed in sassy to snarky responses, all designed to evoke a bit of humanity and friendliness without venturing into too much personal familiarity.
That will come.
Every year Apple (and competitors with similar voice-based interface technology) will further embed Siri functionality into the operating systems and third party applications, and every year Siri will become more knowledgable, entertaining, useful, and informative. I can easily envision multiple Siri personalities available to Apple’s customers; male, female, younger, older, but each more capable, and seemingly more sensitive to our needs, particularly as the technology learns our habits, routines, requirements, wants, and needs.
Granted, Siri’s voice merely reflects answered questions or completed tasks, but the real work goes on behind the scenes as Siri listens and Apple gathers our requests and commands and builds upon the increasingly deeper integration into the company’s products. Siri could easily become friend and confidant as much as personal assistant. Obviously, we’re a long way off and far removed from Siri and similar technology gaining artificial intelligence and becoming a sentient technology, circa Commander Data on Star Trek TNG, but the path forward is already visible.
Although a bit slow, Siri on Apple Watch works remarkably well (unless I thicken up my Brooklyn-bred hispanic sass with my father’s Scottish Gaelic brogue) now and will get better every year, but the leaps of improvement are far less than that of a child who goes from toddler to babbling brook of questions in a few short years. Building what comes naturally to humans seems to have taken far longer than expected which might explain why humans haven’t adapted en masse to talking intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator.