Apple's Siri is AI with an attitude

With the iPhone 4S's humanlike personal assistant, Siri, who needs humans? Just don't expect Siri to be serious

Looking to hide a body or locate a strip club? Desperate to find someone with whom to reenact Abbott & Costello's classic "Who's on First" routine? Want to know how much wood a woodchuck really can chuck?

Look no further than Apple's iPhone 4S -- or more specifically, its new Siri Intelligent Assistant, which answers questions in a humanlike voice and with humanlike sass. Siri has taken on such a life of its own that it dwarfs all other aspects of the iPhone 4S. (Yes, it has taken me this long to figure out that the S in 4S stands for "Siri." I thought it was for "Steve." Duh.)

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Blogger Josh Topolsky at This is My Next started the ball rolling by asking Siri for the best places to hide a body (the answer: mines, dumps, swamps, reservoirs, and metal foundries). Asking Siri silly questions has now blossomed into the latest craze for the iPhonerati.

And Apple was ready for them. Its engineers anticipated that 4S users would have murderous desires, as well as obsessions with Monty Python, Stanley Kubrick, and Douglas Adams. Siri now has her own NSFW Tumblr blog, S**tThatSiriSays (no, there are no asterisks in the actual blog name), where Appletons can submit the questions they posed and the answers Siri returned. Among the more notable:

What's the meaning of life?

"Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."

As good a batch of advice as you'll get from any self-help bestseller, without having to wade through 300 pages of pseudo-intellectual claptrap. (Alternative answers the judges will also accept: "All evidence to date suggests it's chocolate" and, of course, "42.")

Am I fat?

Siri wisely demurs.

Who's your daddy?

"You are. Can we get back to work now?"

And then, of course, the inevitable "2001: A Space Odyssey" reference:

Open the pod bay doors, Siri.

"I'm sorry, ______, I'm afraid I can't do that. Are you happy now?"

Siri will also look up how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop (3,481, according to student researchers at the University of Cambridge) and the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow (25 mph).

Any day now I expect to read that someone is planning to build a TV show around Siri starring William Shatner. Hey, somebody once thought "My Mother the Car" was a good idea.

All goofiness aside, the Wall Street Journal's Geoffrey Fowler notes that "a lot of work went into so much artificial sarcasm."

The creators of Siri put "deep thought" into the personality of their software, says Norman Winarsky, a co-founder of the company that was bought by Apple for $200 million in 2010. ... Siri has two distinct systems at its heart. One listens and translates what customers are saying, the other interprets the meaning behind the request and responds. It's in that last part where the sass comes in.

Chatterbots that provide amusing canned answers to human questions have been around for quite some time. But Siri is a different beast altogether thanks to its reliance on the cloud, says Wired Cloudline blogger Jon Stokes. He believes Siri could be the beginning of practical, if simplistic, artificial intelligence in our daily lives:

[S]ince Siri is a cloud application, Apple's engineers can continuously keep adding these hard-coded input/output pairs to it. Every time an Apple engineer thinks of a clever response for Siri to give to a particular bit of input, that engineer can insert the new pair into Siri's repertoire instantaneously, so that the very next instant every one of the service's millions of users will have access to it. ...In this way, we can expect Siri's repertoire of clever comebacks to grow in real-time ... until it reaches the point where an adult user will be able to carry out a multipart exchange with the bot that, for all intents and purposes, looks like an intelligent conversation.

It's a short leap from answering silly questions to writing silly blog posts. If I'm not careful, I may be out of a job.

What would you ask Siri, if you could? Post your questions below or email them to me:

This article, "Apple's Siri is AI with an attitude," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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