Q&A with Siri

December 2, 2011

What’s my favorite app? If you had asked me prior to October 14 of this year, I would have probably responded with one of the dozens of photography-related apps that I use on a regular basis. I collect them like others might collect stamps or baseball cards. I would have a hard time choosing a favorite there. However, October 14 was the day I got my new iPhone 4S, and with it came iOS 5 and Siri. In the days that followed, Siri became my favorite app. You can use Siri to schedule meetings, send text messages or read them back, find businesses and get directions, place phone calls to a friend or even check the weather in Cozumel.

Siri isn’t all business. In order to make her seem more human-like, Apple engineers included numerous Easter eggs and a sense of humor. You can ask her Star Trek and Doctor Who questions, and she provides comical responses that make most nerds swoon. Many of those questions have been posted endlessly across the Internet, so I won’t duplicate them here. Suffice to say, I’m sure Apple engineers are constantly finding more ways to make Siri both useful and fun.

Apple describes Siri as an intelligent personal assistant. Others have referred to Siri as simply voice recognition, but that doesn’t give full credit to her capabilities. Voice recognition software generally requires hours of training and memorizing specific commands. On the other hand, Siri works out of the box with no training or special commands. You simply ask her a question, much like you would talk to a human, and she responds appropriately. Voice recognition apps in the past were mostly mute, save for a few canned responses. With Siri, you feel like you’re having a conversation with a person. When she doesn’t understand a request, which is rare for me, she asks for more information or clarification. The first few days of using Siri, I asked her ridiculous questions and she started responded in a snarky tone, just like a real person!

I feel the major reason behind Siri’s reliability is Apple’s cloud-based approach to her design. When you give Siri a request, it is processed and sent to Apple’s remote servers where I assume all kinds of complex calculations are performed to compare and rank, with the mostly relevant response being sent back to my iPhone within seconds. With this approach, Apple can train Siri to recognize regional language differences like sentence structure, accents and dialects. This is why she can respond to natural language requests and why, like most Apple products, it just works.

* Some may argue that Siri is part of iOS and technically not an app. So for the record, my favorite photography app du jour is Instagram, where you can find me @wdkrebs.