What Google's Rubin doesn't understand about Siri

Android chief Andy Rubin says your smartphone shouldn't be your personal assistant, but he may be underestimating the power of Siri.

The head of Google's Android mobile OS, Andy Rubin, doesn't think your smartphone should be your personal assistant. In comments made during an interview at the AsiaD conference this week, Rubin downplayed the impact of Siri--the voice interactive personal assistant included with the iPhone 4S.

According to reports from AllThingsD, Rubin said, "You shouldn't be communicating with the phone; you should be communicating with somebody on the other side of the phone."

On the contrary, talking to a smartphone is arguably the most natural way of communicating with it. It's like the future of mobile communications is finally catching up with what Star Trek was doing decades ago. Why shouldn't you be able to just ask the device for information, or tell it to perform tasks and functions rather than pinching, tapping, and swiping to accomplish the same thing?

The point is semantic--Android also lets you talk to it. In fact, Google seemed to think it was a fabulous idea when it was hyping the Voice Actions feature in Android. Perhaps Rubin's point is a matter of perspective: the more scientific engineering philosophy that is so pervasive with Google and Android versus the more creative and intuitive culture of Apple products. Maybe Rubin feels that voice commands are good, but "conversing" with an artificial intelligence is just silly.

One of the pitfalls of voice interaction is syntax. Voice interaction has been around for some time, but it is typically limited to a strict set of commands it understands, and only if they are spoken the right way. The power of Siri is the ability to understand natural language. The reason that Siri is a "personal assistant" and not just a voice command system is because you can just talk--like you would talk to a human personal assistant--and Siri can understand and act. Siri all but removes the learning curve.

Admittedly, there is a degree of novelty to Siri. We have to work through the initial desire to direct Siri to "open the pod bay doors" just to see how she responds, or ask Siri ridiculous questions that are beyond the scope of its capabilities. But once the dust settles and iPhone 4S users begin to really use Siri as its intended, it will be a powerful tool.

Rubin either doesn't understand Siri, or he does--but he'd rather not admit it publicly. I lean toward the latter, because the newly unveiled Android "Ice Cream Sandwich" also strives to make the voice command capabilities understand more natural language.

Apparently it is OK for your smartphone to be your personal assistant, as long as your smartphone runs on Android.

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Tony Bradley

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