February 6, 2012

Apple’s Siri voice technology is one of the must-have features of the iPhone 4S, and has become one of the phone’s biggest selling points.

Voice technology is not new. What makes Siri and similar technologies different is that it uses natural language processing.

With traditional voice technology, a user would have to use exact phrases to accomplish a task. With Siri, users can get answers to the same question or perform a task through a variety of phrases. You can ask Siri, “What’s the temperature today?” or “Do I need to wear a coat?” or “Is it cold out?” All of those questions will prompt Siri to look up the weather and give a report.

“The best part of natural-language recognition is that there’s a much shorter learning curve,” Marco Arment, creator of iOS app Instapaper and former lead developer of Tumblr, said in an email. “Rather than remembering strict commands, the language recognition allows us to speak the way we think without hesitation or frequent errors.”

How Siri could enhance news apps

Siri and its technology are currently only available to built-in apps on the iPhone 4S. Third-party apps are shut out, but many tech writers predict that Apple will open up Siri to third-party apps as early as this summer. Apple still maintains that Siri is in beta, and that it is improving all the time and recognizing new commands.

So what could Siri give third-party apps? What could it give news apps? How would it help people with physical impairments to better use apps?

Some news sites have tried to make their apps accessible for people with disabilities. The Economist iPad app, for instance, has built-in text-zooming and audio versions of articles, which is more than what other news apps offer.

“At the moment, our apps are the ones that do the talking, since you can listen to the whole of The Economist read to you by professional news readers,” said Oscar Grut, managing director of digital editions at The Economist. “Voice technology would give our readers the chance to talk back.”

Users, for instance, could ask Siri to read the main story in The Economist aloud. Or they could ask, “What are the latest headlines from The Economist?” and have Siri read off the latest news. Users could then ask Siri to open up a particular story that they’re interested in. Voice technology, Grut said, could also make it easier for users to leave comments on The Economist’s website while on the go.

Raluca Budiu, user experience specialist at the Nielsen Norman Group, said voice technology makes it easier to input information, which is important on mobile.

“Mobile devices are used in a variety of contexts, and it’s often easier to speak than to type,” she said via email. “Plus, typing on the small screen is tedious and error-prone.”

Shaun Kane, assistant professor of human-centered computing at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, agrees. “Siri provides an alternate method for entering text that may be more efficient,” he said via email. “I know that many blind mobile phone users are excited by the potential of this technology.”

Challenges of opening up Siri to third-party apps

No doubt, there will be some challenges ahead. What happens if a user has multiple Siri-enabled news apps available and the user asks, “Read me the latest headlines?” Will Siri ask the user to specify the publication? Will it get confused? Will users have to specify a setting that delineates which news app is the preferred app?

Arment said that allowing apps to integrate with the global, system-wide Siri functionality is tricky and could cause issues with the built-in commands.

Siri currently allows users to create reminders in the built-in calendar app with the command “Create a reminder.” That command only works for the built-in calendar app right now, but it’s easy to imagine a future where third-party apps would like to allow users to create reminders via Siri for their apps.

User expectations for Siri have been high, with many people believing that Siri is Artificial Intelligence. Siri is natural language voice technology with a lot of clever heuristics thrown in, but it is not AI, and while it may seem a little HAL 9000 like at times, it’s not. A challenge for Apple and app developers will be managing expectations, Arment said.

“Even though Siri’s natural-language processing is very good, it’s not a real human, and it will never understand the full complexity of our language and communication practices,” he said. “But as some of its capabilities, marketing and displayed ‘personality’ make it appear more human, people will expect it to understand us as well as other humans, and they’ll get increasingly frustrated that it isn’t as good as they want it to be.”

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