Sunday, 13 May 2012 22:35

Apple’s Siri silly or smart on best cell phone question?


It’s all over the news – Apple’s Siri says the Nokia Lumia 900 is the “best smartphone ever”, thanks to answers contained within Wolfram Alpha, although getting the Lumia answer depends on which question you ask.

When the news broke that Apple’s own Siri, the smart talking seductress of the artificial intelligence world, was pumping products that weren’t from Apple, there was widespread incredulity.

After all, doesn’t Apple control the answers that Siri delivers? Isn’t Siri really a real-live woman sitting inside a metal room as depicted on the Big Bang Theory?

Well, while Apple certainly must have some control over what Siri says, many of Siri’s answers come from Wolfram Alpha, the “computational knowledge engine” that is trying to be all that Google isn’t.

Indeed, Apple has ensured that Siri has clever answers to questions or commands like “open the pod bay door”, “will you marry me”, “where can I hide a body” and many more that Siri users the world over have undoubtedly tried on many, many occasions.

So, when I read the news, I too tried asking Siri “what’s the best smartphone ever”, as all the news reports noted.

Here, I got the smartalec Siri, the one that answers “the one you’re holding”, or “you’re kidding, right?” amongst some other sweet nothings digitally not-so-whispered via loudspeaker.

I thought to myself – ah, Apple has pulled strings behind the scenes to ensure the “embarrassment” of Siri showing, via Wolfram Alpha results, that a Nokia Lumia 900 was the best, was gone.

But it made me wonder: was I asking the right question?

A quick check of some other reports on this very issue showed me that some people were instead asking Siri “what’s the best cellphone ever”, as US "cellphone" users sometimes say, rather than "smartphone".

So, I tried asking that question instead.

Lo and behold, instead of the expected clever Siri comeback, I get Siri’s notification that she’s looking that up for me.

Then came the result I was looking for – the Wolfram Alpha “printout” showing me, based on those same 5 results that presumably no-one else has yet added to, that the Nokia Lumia 900 is indeed the best ever, complete with a picture of the cyan coloured model, just as I’d seen in the press.

If Apple has indeed changed the answers for the “best smartphone ever”, perhaps the crunchy company is still yet to do so for the “best cellphone ever” question.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the reality is simple. Siri isn’t a seductive real-life woman sitting in a metal box as seen on TV.

Siri doesn’t even have a real gender – as an amazing piece of software, how can it?

Siri is a software based form of artificial intelligence that uses the best answers available at the time, based on Siri’s understanding of what you’ve said, and as we all know, Siri is still in beta.

Thus, unusual or unexpected answers are bound to happen from time to time, no matter how smart Siri eventually becomes – something even humans are known to do too, even if we are supposed to be naturally intelligent, rather than artificially.

So, the Siri sideshow will keep rolling on, performing tasks, “obeying” commands and answering questions – even if sometimes, Siri teaches us to expect the unexpected.


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.



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