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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

An Interview with Siri on the iPhone 4S

Normally, I don't just pass along things that I find on the Internet, but about 4 million or so people are now getting to know a computer personality called Siri on the Apple iPhone 4S. My first introduction to an attempt at artificial intelligence or natural language programming was a program called Eliza on the Apple II. ELIZA was named after Eliza Doolittle, a working-class character in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, who is taught to speak with an upper-class accent.  Wikipedia: Eliza. The program would respond to questions by parsing and substitution of key words into canned phrases. The program predates personal computers by several years and did not use speech but typed questions initially on a teletype machine.

Ultimately the programmers are working on what is called the "Turing Test." Named after the pioneer computer programmer, Alan Turing, who proposed the test in his 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence. The test is usually described as follows:
A human judge engages in a natural language conversation with a human and a machine designed to generate performance indistinguishable from that of a human being. All participants are separated from one another. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. The test does not check the ability to give the correct answer, it checks how closely the answer resembles typical human answers. Wikipedia:Turing test
I found a recorded conversation with the iPhone 4S by Lary Magid on cnet News called appropriately, An interview with Siri (podcast). Although the responses from the Siri program on the iPhone 4S are much more elaborate than the canned responses from the ancient Eliza program, some of the same features show up in the iPhone iteration. It is obvious in a few seconds of conversation that Siri is not much closer to successfully passing the Turing Test than Eliza was back in 1982.

All of our Apple computers have spoken to us for years. If you have voice alerts selected, the computer will read all of the alerts that appear on the screen. It is only mildly irritating, not nearly as irritating as the old Nissan voice warnings about open doors and lights on that came with Nissan automobiles in the 1980s. I have a rule not have cars talk to me. I am ambivalent about computers. I am waiting to see if I can stand having a talking phone.

I am currently on the waiting list for iPhone 4S, all of the stores in the Phoenix area sold out their inventory by Saturday afternoon. When I got to the store, they had one white model left and it sold while I was in the store. When the iPhone shows up, I will probably have a few more comments. Hopefully, something in this new phone will help or at least apply to genealogy.


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