In science-fiction movies, it’s natural to see people talk to computers. Of course, things usually go very wrong, a la Hal 9000, which decided to kill his masters.
Unfazed by literature, today’s tech geniuses continue to work hard on developing human-like computers to make our lives better. To this end, IBM (NYSE:IBM) has Watson, which beat two top Jeopardy champions. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has developed some cool voice-activated applications. And Nuance (NASDAQ:NUAN) has created voice-recognition software.
Now Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has moved into the game as well with Siri, which essentially is your own virtual personal assistant. The voice recognition doesn’t just hear you — according to Apple, it “understands” you. If you ask it one question, and it answers, and you ask a subsequent question, it will answer that while keeping the first question in mind for context.
Of course, speech-recognition and voice-command programs have had mixed success. After all, it is extremely difficult to interpret the spoken language — as well as understand the nuanced meanings (or even crude ones). For the most part, human personal assistants have remained a fairly secure job segment.
But might Siri represent a tipping point? At this week’s announcement of the iPhone 4S, the product demo certainly had a cool air about it. And Apple has some of the world’s smartest engineers. So it should be able to make Siri a success, right?
Maybe. But right now, there’s a couple flaws, and not just in the technology. Consider this: In the Japanese language, Siri sounds much like the word “shiri,” which refers to the buttocks. As should be no surprise, Twitter has come alive with jokes poking fun at the slip-up.
OK, this is not necessarily a brand killer. Foreign language translations have been a problem of some of the world’s best companies.
Still, when it comes to human-like computers, it’s probably a good bet there will be lots of kinks to work out. But if such things are going to become mainstream — and not just mostly science fiction — it’s still probably Apple that will be able to pull it off.
Tom Taulli is the author of “All About Short Selling” and “All About Commodities.” You can also find him at Twitter account @ttaulli. He does not own a position in any of the stocks named here.