Wednesday, May 2, 2012

SIRI and the Uncanny Valley

So I was reading business insider today and I saw this interesting article by Jay Yarrow about how SIRI isn't as revolutionary as it should be. 

Well Jay - I'd suggest you need to read about  Hiroshi Ishiguro: The Man Who Made a Copy of Himself
(Jay: if you're reading this, I'd bet you already know who he is)

But for those who don't - Hiroshi Ishiguro is known for coining the term the "Uncanny Valley".  The term explains that as robotic technology approaches human like characteristics but isn't "quite human" it just creeps people out.   A simple example would be the movie the Polar Express, great feel good family story, released at Christmas, featuring Tom Hanks as virtually every character in the movie -- why was the Polar Express NOT another Toy Story?  Just read the Uncanny Valley and you'll understand why.

Based on all the complaints I've heard about SIRI, it's from people who would reject a robot because it creeps them out (which is A LOT of people).  The same people who fail to realize what an amazing technological achievement SIRI is and basically focus on it's shortcomings and inability to understand certain - what appear to be simple requests and/or situations and inflections. Ex: "ME: SIRI - CALL ME AN AMBULENCE!!!!, siri: okay, from now on I'll call you 'AN AMBULENCE'".

I've got plenty of criticism for SIRI myself - especially surrounding the awful commercials that Apple is currently running that include SIRI.   I mean if we're going to complain about SIRI - you don't need to look any further than Samuel L. Jackson aka Mace Windu Jedi Master, aka Colonel Nick Fury (Avengers), aka Jules Winfield (Pulp Fiction), aka Shaft, aka Neville Flynn (the dude who was pissed about the motherf**king snakes on the motherf**kin plane) who now, in real life apparently needs HELP FROM SIRI to find organic mushrooms a half mile from his house to make risotto -- SIRIously?? give me a break.  How freaking lame!!!  Samuel L. Jackson should be asking SIRI how to hide blood stains from the back of a car, or to move his meeting with Tony Stark back by two hours.

But alas it's easy to criticize - I think it's important to realize that the first Internet browsers crashed all the time, and the search engines like Google weren't able to guess which word you actually meant to type either.  It takes a few successive generations of technology to work out the kinks -- and to under-estimate SIRI in it's first release would be a pivotal mistake.

My only issue with Jay's article is that it fails to acknowledge that Apple (and or Nuance who owns SIRI) needs to open SIRI up to developers, and let them come up with new interesting things.

As soon SIRI is open to developers --- that's when then real, useful innovation can be added.  Shortly after that the same people who criticize SIRI today won't be able to imagine life without SIRI tomorrow.

Jay is clearly a technologist, and I know he realizes that SIRI is an amazing invention, albeit buggy and less than useful at times.  But technologists see the possibility that with a small software upgrade tomorrow - and a few new interfaces that SIRI can be amazing.  SIRI could be that intelligent software that realizes you've just finished eating, and paying for a meal and it will automatically summon your self parking car to pick you up at the front of the restaurant to shuttle you to your next destination.  No more walking across parking lots in the rain.  Now that's useful -- and it's coming soon.   If a car can parallel park, it can easily find a spot in a grocery store after it drops you off -- hopefully way in the back away from shopping carts.  But remember - you'll probably "summon" your car back using a SIRI like app.

SIRI (or a personal digital assistant) will be that thing that you use to control all the apps on your phone/tablet, including managing permissions and auto-loading the right app (ex: chili's interactive menu app) when you walk in the door to Chilis restaurant. 

Before SIRI can become that pervasive it needs to cross the uncanny valley - from being a creepy novelty to something truly useful before everyday non-technologist people will accept it into their daily lives. 

But I don't think for one second that SIRI is as good as it will get.  SIRI is as good as it needed to be to be a debut as a commercially viable product in the market and add a clear point of differentiation for Apple products. 

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