“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” said Arthur C. Clarke. And that’s what Siri, a new virtual personal assistant that’s finally going live in the App Store after some sneak peeks last year, is going for. At the least it will be an excellent party trick.
The Siri app (only recommended for the iPhone 3GS, as it’s rather intensive) connects your natural speech queries to web services APIs to complete complex planning tasks. It understands things like where you are, what accounts you have on various services and the context of the last question you asked. So you can do things like make a restaurant reservation (using OpenTable) then buy tickets and pick available seats for a nearby performance (using StubHub). All you have to do is tell the app what you want and it will process your speech (using Nuance).
This is just the first public release of Siri, and you’re bound to encounter more stalls, crashes and unanswered queries than you’d hope from true Clarke-style tech magic. “This is the earliest possible time we thought it would be useful — not perfect, but useful,” said Co-Founder and CEO Dag Kittlaus in a recent interview.
Siri comes out of SRI’S $150 CALO Project on artificial intelligence, and has raised $24 million in funding from Morgenthaler Ventures, Menlo Ventures and Horizons Ventures. It currently has affiliate and referral relationships with about 20 services. Siri caches what it can through data dumps, but makes real-time web service calls. It’s not as fast as a search, and it won’t help you with the long tail, but it can do quite a few tasks that would take way too much time and hassle in a mobile browser.
“Mobile is chapter one,” said Kittlaus. “If you think about how we interact, you could make a web site, check in through email, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, IM your buddy Siri…”
Check out the video demo below, which features the somewhat awkward query “I’d like a romantic place for Italian food near my office.”