How smart is that phone?

How smart is that phone?

October 31st, 2011 in Opinion Times

Engineers, scientists and armchair techies might want to debate the merits and utility of Apple Inc.'s just-released iPhone 4S, but most everybody else just wants to know how it works and what it can do for them. Turns out, the new phone can do a lot for its owner. Indeed, the device is smarter than one might think at first introduction.

The iPhone 4S contains voice-activated software, called Siri, that allows the phone to become a fully functioning partner of its owner. Ask Siri a question, and Siri answers in a gentle electronic voice that, if it were human, would definitely be female. In other words, it is now possible to carry on a conversation with your phone as well as on it.

Siri's intelligence might be of the artificial kind, but it still is wide, deep and apparently capable of learning by amassing information based on previous questions. Given that, Siri, for all its useful skills, also is a bit disconcerting. Those new to the technology frontier where the iPhone 4S and related devices roam can be excused if they suddenly wonder about the IQ of the device they hold in their hand.

Siri's intelligence quotient seems considerable. Siri, Apple reports, can search the Internet, make phone calls, read text messages aloud and serve as a vocal calendar, reminding you of things that you need to do. That's not all.

Siri also serves as a sort of personal assistant. Ask about the temperature and a weather report will appear on the phone's screen. Lost or need directions before you start a journey? Just ask Siri, and directions appear on the screen. Ditto for other every-day questions, if Apple's ubiquitous commercial for its new product is to be believed.

In the ad, individuals hold the iPhone and ask it a question. A cute adolescent asks "What does a weasel look like?" A businessman apparently rushing from one place to another tells Siri to "Move my meeting from 3 to 4" and a seemingly harried women tells Siri that "I'm locked out." To the latter, Siri quickly responds with the names, addresses and phone numbers of locksmiths located nearby.

The implication, of course, is that Siri can answer most simple questions and help fulfill most uncomplicated requests. Perhaps Siri can, but the jury is still out. Those who have used Siri's software services are of mixed mind. Some say Siri is "surprisingly accurate," but others report that some of the features "don't work for me." What's certain, though, is that Siri is not a sentient being. She will not and cannot offer an informed opinion or express emotion, something we expect from our more human partners.

Whatever Siri and the iPhone 4S can or can not do, their arrival is a reminder that an artificial intelligence/voice control system -- the technical name for Siri -- is probably just another landmark in an ever-evolving high-tech world. There's sure to be a new phone or similar device with new software and new applications for artificial intelligence before long. It's all part of mankind's continuing technological evolution.