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Guest Column: Ask and you shall receive

By on October 13, 2011No Comment

At your service

Although Apple’s keynote presentation last week left many underwhelmed (no iPhone 5), there was one bright spot for knowledge workers: Siri.  The new feature is a voice activated virtual assistant that allows users to use voice commands to control functions on the iPhone such as speech-to-text, calendaring, and calling.  More significantly, Siri features natural language processing that enables users to make queries and searches and receive answers.

Search as we know it is significantly limited by its design.  Typical searches return correct result sets, meaning a list of sources that meets the search criteria.  Unfortunately, searches typically don’t return correct answers; you must do that part of the work yourself by combing through the result set.  Not only is this time consuming, but the process of sorting through the search results opens up the possibility of ending up in selecting and using the wrong information.

During Apple’s announcement, the company showed a demo video of Siri that included a woman asking her iPhone “Is it going to be chilly inSan Franciscothis weekend?” Siri responded “Not too cold, maybe down to 61 degrees.”  She asked a question, and got an answer.  Typically, she would have accessed Google on her smartphone or PC and typed “San Franciscoweather.”  She would have been rewarded with links to weather sites, as well as a relatively handy weather forecast image at the top of the results page.  She would have gotten the information she needed, but not in the same way.  A traditional search for the information would have returned correct results, but not the specific answer to her real question.

Voice activated commands are nothing new, and Siri’s original iPhone app has been around since February 2010.  Apple acquired the company in April of 2010, and has given the underlying virtual assistant technology the Apple design treatment, tightly integrating it into all areas of the iPhone 4S.  Siri is activated by holding down the home button, and then asking a question or giving a voice command.  Siri will ask clarification questions if needed until it has the information it requires for the task.  For fact checking, Siri leverages connections to sources such as Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha.

Siri has roots in cognitive software with artificial intelligence incorporated into its code, which was originally developed by the Stanford Research Institute in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  Originally dubbed CALO (Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes), the project’s goal was to develop software for interrelated decision-making tasks that had previously been resistant to automation.  To succeed, the cognitive software needed to learn from experience, take orders, explain its own actions, and respond to unexpected input.

Despite its serious sounding roots, Siri on the iPhone 4S seems destined to be used for finding restaurants, booking movie tickets, and voice automation tasks such as speech-to-text and controlling phone functions.  However, the potential of the tool to revolutionize how we think about search is tremendous.  Apple has thrown its weight behind the virtual assistant concept and, if the company’s past successes are any indication, there is a good chance that others will follow.  Existing companies in the space, such as Nuance, could also find increased interest in their offerings.

Improving the search experience for knowledge workers and consumers is sorely needed, and with Apple’s considerable backing, Siri just might be the first step in a larger evolution of search that emphasizes correct answers over correct results.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

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