“Hey Siri, It’s Time for an Upgrade”

We are rapidly transitioning from being a people who walk down the street with our heads bent slightly down as we tap out commands on our cellphones to a people who walk down the street with our heads up as we talk to Siri or other similar voice recognition systems in our cell phones.

More and more people are talking out their texts and emails rather than punching at their cellphone keyboards.

It’s a true revolution, but only the beginning of unleashing the power of the computer we carry in our pocket as we switch from the awkwardness of our fingers to the ease of voice.

But there’s an obvious problem: The software behind voice recognition systems is horribly stupid and inadequate. It can’t anticipate where we are headed with our thoughts. It can’t understand the difference between simple words that sound alike, such as “here” and “hear.”

And it can’t learn. Far worse, it can’t even carry on a conversation.

When Apple unveiled the iPhone 4s, it also launched a revolution, a so-called personal assistant that could supposedly do anything you commanded it to do. But the reality of that promise is far different, and the voice recognition revolution has been slow in coming. We now know that many people who try Siri or other voice-recognition systems stop using them — because they don’t work well.

To test this, try something really simple, like, “Hey, Siri, I need to get to the airport. Call me an Uber.” Good luck.

But we are getting there. We are on the cusp of developing sophisticated artificial intelligence for narrow purposes, like driving a car. And it’s already smart enough to fly an airplane.

One of the most interesting problems we’ll soon face as AI and voice recognition get better is that we have emotions and computers do not.

A conversation I recently had with a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who follows this industry closely was fascinating because he believes a truly intelligent virtual assistant based on AI and voice recognition is a dream. “It’s not clear that you can have true AI without irritability,” he said. “Humanlike intelligence without sentience can be very tricky. There is an adversarial relationship that develops between humans and intelligent systems.”

Ask an airline pilot what he thinks of the system that lands his airplane better than he can. A couple of years ago, I had a long conversation with a JetBlue pilot who sat next to me on a flight across the country to Washington, D.C., where he was based. He really got hung up on the computer systems in Airbus aircraft. He really resented them. He thought they had led to accidents and insisted that although they could make perfectly good landings in any weather, he could make better landings.

On the one hand, he was happy to admit they worked well overall and are a useful tool in the cockpit, but he had an edge in his voice that conferred resentment because these systems have no real intelligence.

That said, the tech world is moving ahead on virtual assistants, artificial intelligence and voice recognition as fast as it can throw money at it.

The leaders in the field at present are IBM and Nuance’s Dragon systems, but the competition coming up from Apple, Google and Amazon soon could be overwhelming in scope and investment.

Google, for example, is well ahead of every company in the race to develop AI, which is what great voice recognition, and thus virtual assistants, will be based on. Google also bought all the great robot companies in the world two years ago. The combination of AI and robotics is very powerful.

Meanwhile, Amazon isn’t kidding around with its Echo voice-enabled speaker and simulated intelligence coming from Alexa. That’s a clever entertainment, but don’t mistake it for an adult toy. Amazon is throwing an incredible amount of capital at all three areas — AI, voice recognition and virtual assistants — as is Apple. And Apple may have the big surprise, at least in the short term.

It’s called Sierra, and thousands of secret beta testers already have it. Sierra is based primarily on Siri development. According to one of the testers, whom I spoke to recently, it’s “fabulous,” and a “serious upgrade.”

But the larger point not to be missed is that Apple, Amazon and Google are in this game to win it, and the competition is about to become fierce. My friends and contacts in Silicon Valley are ultimately betting on Google, but they speak of Amazon with great respect and nervously wonder if Apple has the same moxie it once had.

But the real winners will be us, the consumers of AI and voice recognition. Our lives may become far easier and better when we can say to Siri, “Hey, Siri, I’m bored. What should I do?” and her answer isn’t, “Not with me, I hope.”

To your health and wealth,

Stephen L. Petranek
for, The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning