Siri, the little things that make a big difference

December 1st, 2011 § 1 comment


The nice version of HAL 9000

I believe that in 30 years most of us will look back at Siri as the birth of true artificial intelligence (AI). For the first time we can talk to a computer. I’m not talking about voice commands where the computer recognizes a few words and does a ridiculously poor job of interpreting them; I’m talking about a computer that takes natural English and figures out what underlying commands you want it to perform. Below you will find some of my favorite uses that were not shown in the Siri ads. The obvious examples like “Read me my text message” and “Call my wife” are great but are only useful when you aren’t able to look at the device; I want to touch on the myriad of uses that trump using your thumbs.

Call The Natural Cafe

One of my favorite examples of natural language interpretation is when you ask Siri to call a business that you don’t have in your address book. Here I asked Siri to “Call the Natural Cafe”. Any other voice command software would have said either “I can’t find a natural cafe in your address book” or even worse “Calling Nathan Cole”. Siri, on the other hand, somehow recognized that I want a business and used Yelp to search for “The Natural Cafe”. She then went the extra mile and returned just the right amount of information. Business Name and the Street it’s on along with distance from my current position as well as the average review rating. Within about 10 seconds of pulling my phone out of my pocket it’s dialing a number that would have taken an experienced user a minute to retrieve, never mind a novice.

Siri starting a timer

Siri getting cheeky

By far the most common thing I ask Siri to do is start my timer. Like most things in life I’m very particular about how long my green tea brews and I’ve always relied upon some sort of timer to get it just right. I’ve used web apps, kitchen timers and iPhone apps but nothing compares to the ease of using Siri. Sometimes she even likes to get a little cute with me as she did here. I’ve also taken to using Siri to start my timer while I’m cooking. Using headphones my phone came with I can just hold down the button until I hear a beep and say “Start a 20 minute timer”. No more burnt cookies.

Siri Reminder

Location Aware Reminders

Ok this one is in the ads but it’s just too damn useful to pass up. All I have to say is “Remind me to call my sister when I get home” and when I get home the phone will buzz and pop up a handy little link that dials my sister. Don’t gloss over the when you get home part as it’s simply amazing. Some would even call it magic. Now, technically you don’t need Siri to set this up, you just need iOS 5, but doing so manually is quite tedious. By my count it’s a minimum of 10 taps plus typing out the actual reminder and I don’t know of a way to add a contact to the reminder which means no handy link. This is my 2nd most common use of Siri but by far the biggest time saver. It’s amazing how much more reliable I have become at completing items on my never ending honey-do list.

Siri Unit Conversion

How many ounces in a pint?

Back when I had a Nokia feature phone I discovered the wonders of searching Google via SMS (text message) and by far the most common thing I used it for was converting things from one unit to another. If I was cooking a special recipe I would bring an ingredients list and there would inevitably be some ingredient that would need to be converted. For example the recipe might say “1 pint” but the bottle in the store would be measured in fluid ounces. I was very proud of myself for being able to Google such a thing back in 2004 but the process was still a bit tedious. Even on my iPhone typing such a thing out accurately was something of a chore. Siri makes it the most trivial of tasks. You can also use it for converting currency which sounds like a great travel aid.

Siri understanding spanish words

I had no idea how to spell pasilla

I was having dinner at a friend’s house shortly after I unboxed my iPhone 4S and my wife, a little tired of the praise I was heaping on my new girlfriend, said “Well ask here if she knows what the difference between Pasilla and Pablano chilies is”. Of course Siri doesn’t know such an esoteric thing but I thought I would give it a try to push the language interpretation a bit and I was quite surprised when she got every single word correct. I now use Siri for any Google search that requires more than two words. I have also found myself asking her questions in plain English which can yield surprisingly good Google results. I also enjoy the look of incredulity I get from people I start talking to my phone like I’m a character in Star Trek. Siri rarely lets me down.

Correcting Siri

Not quite right Siri

The last tip I’ll leave you with comes in handy when Siri doesn’t quite get it right. I have found that 90% of the time she gets something wrong that word or phrase is underlined in red. Give that word a tap and she usually suggest the one you were looking for. Even if it’s not there the keyboard pops up and you can correct it. So even in this worst case scenario1 you are still saved time by not typing out most of your query.

  1. Well, worst case scenario is obviously when Siri can’t do anything because of either internet connectivity problems or an overloaded server but lets not be pedantic. []

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