IPhone 6s's Hands-Free Siri Is an Omen of the Future

December 9th, 2015 by Mark Thompson

The headline feature in Apple's latest smartphones, the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, is something called 3D Touch, which lets you activate shortcuts on the phone by pressing a bit harder on the screen.

For now, though, I found a less novel, but far handier feature in the new iPhone - one that has long been the butt of jokes but is now becoming a necessary part of modern computing.

You may have heard of it: It's called Siri, and together with voice-control initiatives from Google, Amazon, Microsoft and several start-ups, it is poised to change the way we think of computers.

Picture the "Star Trek" computer, but instead of powering a starship, it's turning off the basement lights, finding you a good movie on Netflix and, after listening in on a fight between you and your spouse, reminding you to buy flowers the next day. It will be slightly creepy and completely helpful - and it's coming faster than you think.

The ubiquity of voice-controlled assistants changes the way we interact with them. When Siri and other voice systems were new, they seemed gimmicky.

Nobody quite knew what to do with them, and interactions veered toward the awkward. But the more assistants there are, and the more you use them, the more natural they feel - and that means the more you'll use them, feeding the cycle.

The coming pervasiveness of voice-controlled machines will not occur without some social anxiety. There will be conventions to work out - is it O.K. to call out "Hey, Siri!" on a bus?

There will be questions of privacy, too. To start up when they hear certain keywords, systems like "Hey, Siri" have to constantly listen to their surroundings. Apple says Siri is watching for a pattern, not recording or storing any data.

But you can imagine that actually analyzing all of your speech can't be far off, because it would make voice assistants more useful. In fact, for years now, Google's top search engineers have been describing the "Star Trek" computer as their vision of the future of search.

The 'Star Trek' computer is not just a metaphor that we use to explain to others what we're building," Amit Singhal, the head of Google's search team, once told me. "It is the ideal that we're aiming to build - the ideal version done realistically.

For years, we've had to go to our computers to get things done. Now the computers are all around us, in the air. They're listening. They're helping. They're inescapable.


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