Christmas With Siri

Dad sits staring at his iPad, waiting. Siri is holding, calculating, guessing at what to do next. Dad’s last instruction – “Siri, call me an hour from now” – isn’t making sense and pretty soon the ever-patient AI will come back with something obtuse and unhelpful: a Google search result, perhaps, or a suggestion to download an app.

Since Siri launched I’ve been waiting for it to learn how to think. Sure, Siri has some quite sophisticated language analysis abilities, but it still can’t work out what the hell Dad is talking about. That’s the kind of thing an AI should shine at – working out from nuance and context what a person means. Guessing. Remembering context. Getting to know a person’s own particular way of speaking their thoughts out loud.

I’m aware that this is a standard response to Siri and other AI assistant systems like Amazon’s Alexa. To be clear: I’m not complaining – Siri is very well polished; it just isn’t quite there yet in terms of the I-for-intelligence in AI. I’m watching Siri, waiting for signs of genuine artificial thought in the same way I’m watching SpaceX, waiting to see people on Mars.

Don’t forget: while Dad is sitting there issuing instructions to Siri as though Siri is some kind of benevolent HAL 9000, Siri must be working through some really sophisticated math just to recognise the general sense of what Dad might be talking about. That’s difficult enough for me sometimes! There’s real and obvious technical achievement in Siri: this is a system that lets a person talk to their smartphone as though that smartphone is a person too – that’s true even though, for the time being at least, there’s a sense of A-for-artificial at the heart of the experience.

Then there’s the other big benefit: sitting here on Christmas Day watching Dad trying to talk to a machine makes me think about what it’s like to talk to him, and to the rest of my family. Everyone comes together at Christmas, as though the rules enforcing work and networking have suddenly fallen away, leaving nothing but good old-fashioned social bonding over turkey, and mince pies, and wine.

We live in a world occupied as much by machinery as by people. We’re still waking up to this: as those semi-intelligent systems gather pace, racing toward their own singularity, we’re left with more and more weird experiences coalescing into a single, almost solitary “wow”. Faced with computer people who we ourselves made, we are relearning and remodelling the foundations of interaction and, if we are cautious and careful, also rediscovering how to think.

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UK, male, objective (approximately). My views are always my own.

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