When Apple announced their ‘digital assistant’ Siri, I was a massive sceptic. A year later, it is probably my favourite feature on the iPhone.She can take down a text message in a noisy environment (and get it close enough to send without a final edit), she can schedule a meeting, and I no longer use any other calculator app for basic math functions. Forgive me if the personification of Siri bothers you (my wife hates it!). But it feels rude to say "it".
Either way, Siri is clever and knows just enough to be useful.
The Final Hardware Interface Barrier
But she has limits. Granted many of these limitations are down to constraints put in place by her developers, or the technology just not being there yet, but I can see so many ways Siri could help me but can’t. For example, it is all well and good that Siri can respond when you lift her to your ear or by pressing a button, but wouldn't it be better if she was always listening? The ability to call upon Siri at any time, hands free, would break down the final hardware interface barrier, and I can imagine a long list of ways this feature could change the way we use our phones. No longer are we going back and forth with mice, keyboards and multi-touch screens. We are speaking to our devices like they are a person in the room.
This thought hit home when I found myself with one arm behind a washing machine on a busy DIY night. I could see my phone, resting safely on the window sill, and all I wanted to know was the time (I’d also removed my watch for the purposes of plumbing!). I knew that Siri could tell me the time but only if I could get her attention. This thought got me going. If she could listen (and speak) freely, she could also remind me about that TV programme I wanted to watch 10 minutes before it was due to start, she could put some music on to help pass the time, she could read me some emails and take down a few quick replies. She could have done all of this and more, but only if she could listen.
Siri, Meet Big Brother
There is also another possible use for Siri that some may find a little too close to Orwell’s 1984 reality, but one that I could see being used all the same. If Siri was always listening then there would never be a reason to record a meeting or conversation again. You could simply ask Siri to "play back the last ten minutes". The period of time she could ‘remember’ would be dictated purely by the amount of storage available on the device (something like a standard 30 minute buffer sounds reasonable) and if you knew that you were walking into a potentially sensitive situation, you could ask Siri to "go to sleep" or at least "cover her ears". If, however, you were in a situation where the recording of events might prove useful, Siri could continue recording for as long as there was storage space available, uploading data to the cloud when necessary, if bandwidth allowed. Once in the cloud, further features could be available, such as conversation transcription or voice analysis. Maybe you’ve forgotten who told you an important piece of information, or just a funny joke. Well, what if you could quickly search a full transcription of the previous year? And voice analysis could allow Siri to monitor the stress levels of conversationalists, alerting you to unusually high stress levels or if someone had used predetermined key phrases that should concern you.
All of this requires Siri to just keep listening, but why stop there? The iPhone’s cameras, front and rear, could be recording all the time. So could the GPS and the gyroscope. Many modern cars have reversing or front facing cameras. The new Range Rover has an optional five, available to feed information and data back to our devices. So when you ask Siri to playback the last ten minutes, she could include an almost limitless amount of information. With the inclusion of Bluetooth 4.0 to the iPhone 4s, a vast array of external sensors could be communicating with Siri at all times, feeding back not only video streams but information on temperature, humidity or even infrared images.
The Biggest Limitation
Every idea listed above is possible and could be developed for immediate use. There is just one small drawback. As smart phones have moved on in leaps and bounds over the last 5 years, battery technology has not. The battery in the latest iPhone is almost identical to that found in phones over the last ten years. If Siri were listening at all times, interpreting every word and waiting for specific instructions, I doubt she would last an hour. Add to that a handful of information or video feeds from a car or other external source, and that time would decrease even further. So none of this can happen, yet. Some of you will be delighted by this, as the ideas suggested send you back to your armchair waiting for the Y2K bug to wipe out all technology at long last. Others will be as disappointed as I am and hope that the battery boffins get their acts together and catch up fast.