The Pitfalls Of Siri And Other Talking Phones

By Branko Miletic

It wasn’t that long ago when talking to yourself was considered a sure sign that you might have a couple of kangaroos loose in the top paddock. These days though, it seems that just about every third person is doing exactly that, even though most of them are probably talking to a real person on the other end of that mobile phone connection.

But now there is a new trend on the rise- mobile phones that talk (or converse should I say) back to us. This idea of talking tech is hardly new – in 1987 for example, Apple released the Knowledge Navigator concept, a voice-based assistant combined with a touchscreen tablet computer. However in terms of the future, the potential problems associated with these blabbering bits and bytes are just starting surface.

Just last week IBM wanted its iPhone 4S-using staff to turn their devices off during meetings as there were issues with the iPhone’s talking assistant, Siri, blabbering company secrets out to all and sundry.

Another smartphone vendor, Samsung, is on the verge of releasing its Galaxy Tab S3 phone complete with S Voice, which although very similar to Apple’s Siri can do some things that Siri can’t like change a Facebook status or open a Dropbox.

Using voice assistants is a bit like trying to explain quantum mechanics to your deaf 90-year old grandmother, however as most technology improves in leaps and bounds rather than increments, so will the issues.

But let me be clear here- I am not talking about voice activation as much as Adaptive Artificial Intelligence (which is what apps like Siri use to learn) that will become more of a feature in our day to day gadgetry.

Think about this scenario; you wake up to an alarm that is actually a voice telling you what the weather is like and what you should wear and why brown and green always clash. You go into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee and the fridge explains to you the reasons behind the traffic jam on the major freeway into the city, whilst also asking you to take the rubbish out tonight.   Then, as your coffee is being made, the coffee machine decides to remind you not to forget to buy flowers for your wife’s birthday, whereby after you ask ‘when is my wife’s birthday’, it launches into an abusive tirade because you forgot that it was today.

A couple of weeks ago, just for a joke, a friend of mine asked Siri ‘where can I hide a dead body”—“How heavy is the body” was Siri’s reply, which then proceeded to describe the advantages or otherwise of swamps and deep oceans for corpse disposal. Classy – all that was missing were Google-map directions to the nearest vat full of acid sitting in a disused bank vault.

All this talking tech will have its upsides – especially for single or aged people who will no longer feel like they are living by themselves, but it’s the downsides that could be more profound on society, least of which will be all the confusion our pets will experience.

As we have seen with young children these days, whose have handwriting skills ranges from appalling to non-existent thanks to their over-reliance on keyboards. Then there is the scenario whereby when three-year olds are given a book, they try and press it like icons on an iPad, our potential to forget simple tasks is easy.

Will the proliferation of all these voice assistants mean that in the future, adults will end up sounding like Steven Hawking minus the massive intellect?

Will we be unable to connect with anyone that is not providing us directions to the nearest coffee shop, and are we destined to become a species that loses the need for its opposable thumbs?

To be honest, I don’t know – although if you ask Siri, I bet she’ll have an answer for you.

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