Storing Sentience

When Siri was unveiled with the introduction of the iPhone 4S, there were a lot of very intrigued, very happy people. Already, in my usage of Siri with my new iPhone 4S, I find myself pleasantly surprised with the things I’m able to do, and how easy Siri makes so many of the things I’m used to doing. Naturally, there are some shortcomings. Since I use an unlocked 4S with the T-Mobile network, I’m relegated to EDGE when not on wi-fi (how was this speed ever acceptable?), and communication with Siri is woefully slow. I wish I had the scratch to pull off an AT&T subscription, but I just don’t right now.

This got me thinking, however. Since the 4S relies on a persistent, high-speed network to deliver results to the user, what happens when a person has a slow connection, or is in a wireless dead zone? The ability for Siri to function as an interface diminishes dramatically, leaving a person only able to interact with the data that is already on his or her phone. While this normally would not be a problem, anyone looking for Siri functionality in a wireless dead zone is going to be frustrated, period. Naturally, the last thing Apple wants is unhappy customers, so what can Apple do to circumvent this situation?

I found the answer in the iPod Shuffle.

This little device, as many know, is what one might call one of Apple’s lesser-loved projects. At the time of its inception, it filled a necessary void–that of a low-cost music player bearing the iconic Apple logo and “iPod” name. It was my first iPod, and, I’d wager, the first iPod for many others, as well. The problem with the iPod Shuffle, now, is it lacks features. It isn’t relevant anymore. When the shuffle was introduced, MP3 players, including the iPod Classic, were large and relatively bulky, and their battery life left something to be desired. The Shuffle had long battery life, was capable of syncing with iTunes, and offered people an interesting alternative to the blue-hued screens and click wheels of their larger cousins. The storage was all flash, which meant that it wasn’t prone to hard drive failures in the same way the iPod Classic was, and that it could play all day on a single charge.

Since the Shuffle lacked a screen, however, there was no way for a user to really know what was about to play. Apple solved this with their “VoiceOver” feature, which was able to announce the name of the playing track or playlist, or the remaining battery life. In order to do this, however, the user needs to give up some storage space on their device to make room for the VoiceOver data. For some, this is an easy tradeoff, since it adds a sense of depth to the diminutive device. Tuck that in the back of your mind for a moment.

It was recently discovered that the iPhone 4S contains a dedicated sound-processing chip that enables it to better separate your voice from background noise, which increases its ability to recognize what you’re saying before sending that data off to Siri for processing and language recognition. All this data being sent to Siri means that there are a great deal of sound snippets that Apple has at its disposal to refine and improve its voice-recognition and accuracy. The more people use Siri, the better it gets, and the better it gets, the more people use it. Eventually, I believe, Apple will be able to “distill” certain Siri queries down to their core components, picking out speech patterns and pull user voices away from background noises more easily. Furthermore, Apple will be able to condense certain components of Siri down to include that functionality on devices that don’t have a persistent wireless connection, and significantly speed up Siri queries on devices that do. Naturally, looking up restaurants on Yelp or finding out data from Wolfram is going to require a connection to the internet, but things like setting reminders, calendar appointments, taking notes, and playing music can all (theoretically) be done locally, without a persistent data connection. This would allow Apple to install Siri on all of its devices. When the device has a wireless connection, it would be able to upload usage statistics, and download changes to the onboard Siri database while doing its nightly iCloud backup.

Naturally, the user might have to sacrifice some storage space, but it would allow even the iPod shuffle to become a “personal computer”, with the ability to store notes, read emails, and access a user’s information in the cloud when a connection becomes available. Who knows? Apple may even negotiate a wireless deal with service providers that allow all its devices to connect to a Kindle WhisperNet-style “SiriNet” for free, for the purposes of communicating with the Siri servers.

Until we have ubiquitous worldwide wireless coverage, we can talk to the little Siri in our Shuffle.

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A Long, Slow Spiral

In my recent post regarding Google Voice and life integration, one of the main points that I may have failed to mention explicitly is the purpose of all this stuff: to live better, to be able to connect with the people who matter to you seamlessly, without stuff getting in the way.

As I say again and again, technology is designed to help us be better people, live better, feel more human. When people become frustrated with technology, it’s because what they’re dealing with isn’t good technology, it has failed. Thankfully, we’re getting to the point that we’re finally able to create good technology. Then, I ran across this article regarding the integration of T-Mobile’s Bobsled service into Facebook. Awesome stuff.

In case you missed it, the Facebook component is simply a basic VoIP service that lets you make free voice calls to any of your Facebook friends, and it now boasts a redesigned interface that promises to “more clearly differentiate it from a Facebook owned service.”

GigaOM has a great explanation of the whole thing.

Here’s how the new product works: After downloading and installing Bobsled for Facebook on a Windows or Mac PC, the software adds a phone icon next each friend in your Facebook Chat window. Tap the phone icon, and a free voice call is initiated, even if the call recipient hasn’t installed the Bobsled application yet.

Further:

Aside from one-touch calling, the service also supports voice mails in case the personal you’re calling isn’t available or doesn’t pick up. I ran a quick, early test with Mike Wolf, one of my GigaOM colleagues, and the sound quality wasn’t bad. More importantly, I didn’t have to worry about what phone number to dial.

This is it, folks, this is where we start to see the death of the phone number. If you read the above article, you see how powerful this technology really is. Now that Skype (and, concurrently, Microsoft) and T-Mobile are throwing their weight behind VoIP for everyone, we’re going to see a radical shift in the way people communicate. Voice may once again rise in popularity (I’ll only bite if people understand that a five minute conversation is an eternity to me).

We’re changing rapidly, and this is a beautiful thing, but the venerable Phone Number is staring death in the face now. It’s been a long time coming, but I believe the next ten years (even five, possibly) will see the functional demise of the phone number as the most widely identifiable and understood method of communication. As these technologies evolve and improve, we’re going to see even more features begin to emerge that will enable us to lead better lives and communicate even more efficiently. I, for one, am still looking forward to the collective human consciousness that we’ll all be tapped into one day. For those of you who have heard my theory, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched anymore, does it?