Sunday, October 09, 2011

Siri, the Friendly AI

The iPhone 4S video shows a young runner asking Siri to rearrange this schedule. It doesn't show him running into the path of another Siri user driving his convertible.

Siri is the iPhone AI that understands how your phone works and, in theory, understands a domain constrained form of natural language. It has a long AI legacy; it's a spinoff from SRI Artificial Intelligence Center and the DARPA CALO project.

When Siri needs to know about the world it talks with Wolfram Alpha. That's where the story becomes a Jobsian fusion of the personal and the technical, and Siri's backstory becomes a bit ... unbelievable.

Siri was launched as the unchallenged king of technology lay dying. The Wolfram part of Siri began when Jobs was in exile ...

Wolfram Blog : Steve Jobs: A Few Memories

I first met Steve Jobs in 1987, when he was quietly building his first NeXT computer, and I was quietly building the first version of Mathematica. A mutual friend had made the introduction, and Steve Jobs wasted no time in saying that he was planning to make the definitive computer for higher education, and he wanted Mathematica to be part of it...

Over the months after our first meeting, I had all sorts of interactions with Steve aboutMathematica. Actually, it wasn’t yet called Mathematica then, and one of the big topics of discussion was what it should be called. At first it had been Omega (yes, like Alpha) and later PolyMath. Steve thought those were lousy names. I gave him lists of names I’d considered, and pressed him for his suggestions. For a while he wouldn’t suggest anything. But then one day he said to me: “You should call it Mathematica”...

... In June 1988 we were ready to release Mathematica. But NeXT had not yet released its computer, Steve Jobs was rarely seen in public, and speculation about what NeXT was up to had become quite intense. So when Steve Jobs agreed that he would appear at our product announcement, it was a huge thing for us.

He gave a lovely talk, discussing how he expected more and more fields to become computational, and to need the services of algorithms and of Mathematica. It was a very clean statement of a vision which has indeed worked out as he predicted....

A while later, the NeXT was duly released, and a copy of Mathematica was bundled with every computer...

... I think Mathematica may hold the distinction of having been the only major software system available at launch on every single computer that Steve Jobs created since 1988. Of course, that’s often led to highly secretive emergency Mathematica porting projects—culminating a couple of times in Theo Gray demoing the results in Steve Jobs’s keynote speeches.

... tragically, his greatest contribution to my latest life project—Wolfram|Alpha—happened just yesterday: the announcement that Wolfram|Alpha will be used in Siri on the iPhone 4S...

Siri's backstory is a good example of how you can distinguish truth from quality literature. Literature is more believable.

Siri isn't new of course. We've been in the post-AI world since Google displaced Alta Vista in the 1990s. Probably longer.

What's new is a classic Jobs move; the last Jobs move made during his lifetime. It's usually forgotten that Apple did not invent the MP3 player. They were quite late to the market they transformed. Similarly, but on a bigger and longer scale, personalized AIs have been with us for years.  AskJeeves was doing (feeble) natural language queries in the 1990s. So Siri is not the first.

She probably won't even work that well a while. Many of Apple's keynote foci take years to truly work (iChat, Facetime, etc). Eventually though, Siri will work. She and her kin will engage in the complexity wars humans can't manage, perhaps including our options bets. Because history can't resist a story, Siri will be remembered as the first of her kind.

Even her children will see it that way.

Update 10/12/11: Wolfram did a keynote address on 9/26 in which he hinted at the Siri connection to Wolfram Alpha: "It feels like Mathematica is really coming of age. It’s in just the right place at the right time. And it’s making possible some fundamentally new and profoundly powerful things. Like Wolfram|Alpha, and CDF, and yet other things that we’ll have coming over the next year." The address gives some insight into the world of the ubiquitous AI. (No real hits on that string as of 10/12/11. That will change.)

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