A third usable human:computer interface has been ushered in by Apple, bringing with it a vibrant new life for the semantic web. That interface is known as Siri.
Comparisons about inventor cred aside, one trait shared by Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs was the ability to effectively commercialize inventions. Jobs’ track record in the realm of computer interfaces is unparalleled. Minor accomplishments emerging from Jobs’ projects are almost too many to list (the double-click open, typography, layered folders, rounded edges to menus, the trash can, etc.), yet they’re clearly overshadowed by two major human:computer interfaces — the mouse and touch.
Apple didn’t invent the mouse, but it perfected and popularized it, making it not only commonplace, but ubiquitous. Apple didn’t invent gestural computing, but it perfected and popularized it, making it commonplace, first with the iPhone, then the iPad. Both have been emulated by all manner of competitors.
Apple didn’t invent the conversational user interface, but it is now in the process of perfecting it and recently introduced it to more than four million devices. Having the innovation already in so many useful devices is a major step toward collecting the secret sauce the interface needs — data — to make it perhaps the greatest of the three interfaces.
Siri, Apple’s new voice recognition technology, is transformative — calling it “voice recognition” is vastly underselling its importance. It is a technology that has the potential to revolutionize computing, entertainment, home life, and work over the coming decade. And it is perhaps the biggest stake in the ground ever for the vaunted but seemingly elusive semantic Web.
I’ve had my iPhone 4S for a little over a week now, and already I’ve become habituated to using Siri. In my car, I can compose and send texts without taking my eyes off the road; I can call people without looking down; I can start an album just by asking for it. In hotels, I can set my alarm with just a quick instruction, or ask the device to locate a certain store nearby and have a map in front of me moments later. At home, I can call my wife’s cell phone while walking downstairs and avoiding oncoming stairway traffic.
On top of all this functionality, Siri is fun. We’ve all seen the galleries of funny things to say to Siri, and her responses are so varied that it’s hard to catch her in a repetition (except she uniformly locates a nearby therapist if you say you want to murder someone). For instance, when I tried, “How much wood can a woodchuck chuck if woodchuck could chuck wood?” Siri responded at first with a droll, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” When I tried to replicate it later, she responded with, “43 pieces. Everyone knows that.”
When has an interface ever been witty?
And the voice recognition, combined with the data Siri already has to reflect upon, is awesome. The recent storm that knocked out power in many spots along the eastern seaboard had me asking Siri to call the closest Lowe’s. Now, imagine saying, “Call the nearest Lowe’s” and what might come back — “nearest” could be “near miss” or “dearest” or some other mangle of sounds, while “Lowe’s” could be “lows.” But Siri nailed it. Getting “Lowe’s” right, with the apostrophe and all, struck me as mildly amazing; mapping it accurately was by comparison a minor feat. Siri would have been forgiven as “voice recognition” if she had responded with “lows” or “Lowes” — but it was “Lowe’s.”
Compare this to Amazon’s algorithms, which last month failed in a most noticeable way after I bought Michael Lewis’ book, “Boomerang.” Suddenly, Amazon’s pages were filled with suggestions that I buy boomerangs — you know, bent wooden throwing sticks that circle back to the thrower?
Siri wouldn’t have been so naïve.
The semantic Web has been written off as many times as it’s been predicted, but Siri is a powerful realization of the semantic Web — Siri has to figure out what you mean, not just take your literal words and run them against an index of files. Siri has to comprehend that you mean “Lowe’s” instead of “lows.” And that’s powerful.
So why is this beta-version so noteworthy? Imagine a technology in beta that can elevate a device as sophisticated and useful as the iPhone. That’s a beta unlike any other. And so far, Siri’s power is only available to a few core iPhone apps, like the clock, the calendar, messaging, location services, and so forth. Third-party apps aren’t allowed to access Siri’s technologies. Yet. But soon, they will be. Imagine asking Epicurious for a recipe and then for its grocery list, or checking a sports score via the ESPN app.
Or turning off your television by saying, “I’m going to bed.” After all, there’s no reason to believe that Siri won’t be licensed to television manufacturers and others. We may not be that many years away from KITT.
At the moment, Siri is in “beta” and no 3rd party app exists. But what happens when you allow developers to write Siri-enabled scripts that tie into their websites – like Yelp, OpenTable, and others? Siri will become even smarter. For users, it will become even more valuable because better and better data results will come back to it. And Apple — as happened in the iPhone and then iPad spaces — will have a huge lead in 3rd party apps tied into this powerful interface.
As for Siri’s role in the emergence of the semantic Web, Gary Goldhammer writes:
Siri is collecting a monster database of human behavior. Siri goes beyond “need” to “intent” – not what somebody wants, but why. Call it technographic, call it behavioral or call it semantic – whatever the term, Apple, not Google or Microsoft, may be ushering in the era of Web 3.0 and language-based search (and with it, capturing the ad dollars that will surely follow.) “The Semantic Web is not a separate Web but an extension of the current one, in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation.”
For semantic companies, the emergence of Siri is a moment to savor. It is ripe with meaning.