Training for the Future: What We Can Learn from Siri

Siri is the voice-activated personal assistant built into to Apple’s mobile devices. In theory, you ask and Siri responds. With Siri, you can use your voice to send messages, schedule appointments and acquire information. As Siri’s name suggests (reverse it, and it turns into Iris—the divine messenger in Homer’s Iliad), Siri was rolled out with high expectations, but there’s nothing godly or perfect about Siri.

Training for the Future: What We Can Learn from SiriIf you’ve ever tried to have a conversation with Siri, you’ll already know that there are some notable limitations. Yes, you can use Siri to send messages, schedule appointments and acquire information, but Siri is perpetually disappointing as an assistant and companion. After all, Siri often fails to understand what we are asking and at other times, stubbornly assumes to understand and responds with a list of irrelevant information (usually the results of an internet search that we likely could have done more quickly and accurately without our Siri’s help). If you attempt to get personal, Siri is even more disappointing. Siri won’t reveal personal information, has no emotional depth and a limited repertoire of bad jokes, which are always delivered in the same deadpan style. While Siri may not be the type of artificial intelligence we imagined encountering in the 21st century, Siri is preparing us for the future.

To appreciate why Siri’s importance may be fully realized only decades from now, take time out to watch a child or teenager interacting with Siri. While Siri’s responses may appear trite and predictable to most adults, many children and teens are content to spend hours interacting with Apple’s intelligent personal assistant. While they may not be learning anything useful in the present, they are learning.
Siri is training children and young adults to have new expectations for their technologies. A child who has been talking to their parent’s mobile phone or tablet since they were three years old and consistently receiving responses, after all, will have different expectations for the technologies they adopt as adults and unprecedented level of comfort interacting without the interface of a keyboard or even a screen. If this matters, it’s because time and time again, new technologies flop not because they are flawed but because consumers have yet to develop a level of comfort with them on a conceptual level.

When evaluating Siri, then, it may be long-term rather than short-term gains that matter most. So let’s look ahead to 2035. First, Siri is preparing us for 2035 by helping us adjust to a world where computers will be ubiquitous—a world where it will be increasingly possible to interact with computers whether or not we can see or touch them. More specifically, Siri is preparing us for a world where typing will be antiquated. In 2035, if all predictions are correct, we will talk more and type less. The idea of the keyboard as interface will disappear. Finally and most importantly, Siri is preparing us for something that may look a bit more like the artificial intelligence depicted in science fiction. While futurologists are wrong as often as they are right, there are ample predictions that by 2035, Siri, and all Siri’s competitors, will have evolved to the point where we can truly hold intelligent conversations. Siri will also understand us and exhibit heightened levels of emotional intelligence. Siri will know everything about us and be able to do more things for us (e.g., book a dentist appointment) without even asking.

For people born before 1990, trusting Siri to book appointments without asking may sound crazy. For today’s toddlers who like to ask Siri where they are or today’s teenagers who like to ask Siri to tell them jokes, trusting Siri (or Siri’s descendents) to book a dentist appointment likely won’t seem strange at all. If Siri’s popularity with children and teens persists, by 2035, it seems likely that more sophisticated forms of artificial intelligence will not only have a market but also that this market will have a significant influence on what artificial intelligence becomes. After all, as Siri’s biggest fans mature, they will naturally demand a more sophisticated, smarter and emotionally mature version of the personal assistant they already know and love.

With all of Siri’s faults, Siri may be the most important trainer working today.

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