Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Apple's personal assistant - Futureshock

The rumours have been flying ever since Apple bought the AI company Siri that they were going to put an intelligent assistant in iOS devices that used voice recognition. Well the rumours were true, but more on that later. First a quick comment on the hardware.
   Apple invited selected journalists to their Infinite Loop campus today for a event titled "Let's Talk iPhone."After lots of stats of how many billions of songs and Apps have been downloaded, how Apple dominates its markets etc...the new iPhone 4S was unveiled. So many forecasters and "Apple insiders" have egg on their face today - where's the iPhone 5 they were all predicting? Personally I always thought that just as with the iPhone 3 the next release would be an "S" model. The form factor of the iPhone 4 is relatively new (and IMHO gorgeous), why would Apple want to make it obsolete so fast? The new 4S has a faster processor, a better camera, some tweaks to the antennae and that's about it. We'll see the iPhone 5 next year. Once again though the important announcement was the software.
   Tim Cook, the new CEO, at the start of the event said: "Today we're going to be learning about innovations in software and hardware, and the integration of all of these into a "powerful yet simple integrated experience." This perfectly captures Apples ethos - an iintegrated experience, which only they can deliver since only they design and manufacture both the hardware and the software. All their competitors do one or the other and have to team up to do both.
   So back to Apple's new Intelligent Assistant. This has been a dream of Apple's for a very long time. Way back in 1987 they released a concept video of what they called the Knowledge Navigator. This was an intelligent personal assistant that used voice recognition. You can watch one of the series of videos below.
   Siri was a company spun out of the CALO “Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes” project funded by the US DARPA programme. This was a huge AI research project that  ran for five years involving more than 300 researchers from 25 of the top university and commercial research institutions in the US. It's  goal was “building a new generation of cognitive assistants that can reason, learn from experience, be told what to do, explain what they are doing, reflect on their experience, and respond robustly to surprise.” Sounds useful.
   When Apple bought Siri, many people said Apple have bought a search company, but Steve Jobs always said that they'd bought an AI company. Jobs said in a 2010 interview "[Siri is] not a search company. They're an AI company. We have no plans to go into the search business. We don't care about it -- other people do it well." Jobs believes passionately that for too long we've adapted our behaviour to  interface with our computers. Touch is our native way of manipulating our environment hence the iPhone and iPad. But,  speech is our natural form of communication, and consequently we should be talking to our devices. Apple may have stolen another lead on the competition through their acquisition of Siri and into integration into iOS 5. 
   Siri launched there own iPhone app which ran on the 3GS, but, by there own admission, there was barely enough processing power and they had to implement several shortcuts (you can read an interview with Siri's co founder Norman Winarsky here). Apple have waited until the hardware (i.e., the iPhone 4 and their new cloud infrastructure) is fully capable of running the Assistant. I don't expect this to be available on the 3GS. Winarsky says that apps like Google Voice are "partial AI" but that Siri is "real AI." He believes that "We’re talking another technology revolution. A new computing paradigm shift. It reminds me of another SRI Project: Doug Engelbart, Inventor of Mouse augmented human ability back in the ’60s. Just as Steve Jobs took that technology and ran with it, we believe that Apple will use Siri to start another revolution."