Personal Device Assistants: Background information when reading To Siri with Love

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To Siri with Love

A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines

by Judith Newman

To Siri with Love by Judith Newman X
To Siri with Love by Judith Newman
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2017, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2018, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Personal Device Assistants

This article relates to To Siri with Love

Print Review

In Judith Newman's To Siri With Love, one of the book's chapters conveys how important the personal digital assistant has become to the author's son, Gus.

Palm TX personal digital assistant According to Britannica.com a personal digital assistant (PDA) is "a handheld organizer used to store contact information, manage calendars, communicate by e-mail, and handle documents and spreadsheets, usually in communication with the user's personal computer." In the 1990s, the devices were digitized versions of pen-and-paper organizers, one of the more popular being the Palm Pilot released in 1996. As hand-held computing became more advanced with the advent of smartphones, PDAs have evolved as well. Apple's Siri was the first widely known of this new type of virtual assistant.

Siri has had a much longer history than most realize. She began as a concept floated by Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA), the R&D arm of the United States' Defense Department. In 2003 DARPA hired SRI International to develop a voice-activated computer system that would help military commanders with their communication loads. This produced CALO: Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes (Siri's mother, so to speak). DARPA originally invested over $150 million in the project and employed hundreds of top-tier artificial intelligence experts to create this virtual being.

Fast-forward to 2007, by which time significant improvements had been made in commercial hand-held computing, including the ascendance of the Apple iPhone. Recognizing the potential these new technologies represented, SRI struck out on its own, acquiring the software licensing rights from DARPA. Employees Dag Kittlaus, Adam Cheyer and Tom Gruber formed a new company they named Siri to develop a true artificial intelligence based on what they learned while working on CALO. The founders raised $8.5 million dollars from investors and were off and running.

Siri's initial prototype was called HAL, intending to use the line, "HAL's back – but this time he's good." This was in reference to the insane AI in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In early 2010, having abandoned the name "HAL" due to copyright concerns, Siri debuted as an independently developed iPhone app. It was an immediate hit. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs called Kittlaus to discuss the program's future a mere three weeks after the initial product launch, and Verizon contacted the company to make Siri a default app on all their new Androids. Apple ended up purchasing Siri outright and consequently the Android version never came to be.

Pairing with the iPhone initially resulted in severely limiting Siri's capabilities. Apple wanted to insure Siri worked consistently across all its pre-canned iPhone apps, plus, given the company's size, it needed to negotiate tie-ins between Siri and its business partners' products (something a small start-up wouldn't necessarily have to consider). It consequently chose to restrict part of the facility Siri exhibited as an app. Some of these abilities – like making reservations at a restaurant, for example – have been restored as the iPhone and Siri have been able to improve their partnerships and integration. Apple also toned down Siri's personality; the designers had envisioned selling her with different personality packs, where the purchaser could choose to have her respond from a sweet to a sassy manner. The original personality released with the app was pretty snarky!

Regardless, more and more people have come to rely on being able to make calls or get information by simply asking Siri – a feature so popular that most new smartphones come with some sort of voice-activated assistant. Siri and other personal assistants like her are becoming increasingly invaluable in hands-free driving as several state laws have banned drivers from fiddling with handheld devices while behind the wheel. She has also become an essential part of therapy regimens for communities that have difficulty obtaining information without aid, such as those who are visually, physically or cognitively impaired. Needless to say, Siri will be around for some time to come.

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to To Siri with Love. It originally ran in November 2017 and has been updated for the August 2018 paperback edition.

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