Wednesday, 5 October 2011

#Apple's Siri as part of our #education and #future

Apple's personal iPhone assistant Siri got me thinking about the future again and how the concept of 'future' becomes more and more speedy in getting here to our contemporary times. With ongoing amazement I have been following time changing technologies like the 3D printers (replicating materials), the food replicators, nano-technology and so on. The upcoming societal changes are so phenomenal! As I see my son growing up, at times I am jealous of what he will see, how he will be able to live in a society we cannot even begin to imagine in its full potential.

Coming back to Siri: this is an amazing real life adoption of artificial intelligence. Although many people were disappointed when Apple’s new iPhone was so limited in its innovations, the Siri application got me completely enthusiastic. The application has had a long history before it got to the stage it is in, look at this interview with Norman Winarsky, the co-founder of Siri.

Siri has all the potential of an incredible mobile learning and researching tool! It is also a spin-off of a US Government Artificial Intelligence program called the “Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes” or CALO program (started in 2003). Why do I feel it is a major cognitive actor for educational/research change? Just imagine an interface into which you can enter – by voice – the objectives or data fields you have in mind and which reproduces the results. Learning becomes even more contextualized, you enter your questions and get answers. Or for research any hypothesis that comes to mind might be tested to get a rough idea on whether your hypothesis is worth research time and investment. It is such a great human machine interaction. It is as if the imaginary friend from our childhood days has come to live. The voice does not discuss, it only offers assistance and answers to the questions we pose it. I admit that currently Siri is not yet able to do far reaching answers to complex questions, but it is easy to see how this personal assistant – or at least its algorithms – can grow towards a more complex human machine interaction tool. But let’s say Siri would grow up to be such a complex giver of answers – a modern day oracle let’s say, based on our joint data that is mined from the cloud. In that case I do wonder how our brains would adapt? Are straight forward answers beneficiary for cognitive growth or do our brains need frustration to learn and really embed high-end knowledge construction?

The future is such a nice space in time to think about. Some of us are of course better at envisioning the future. As such I see Siri as yet another link to Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry. Who is - in my mind - one of the most underestimated visionaries of the 20th century. To me, he is on the same line as Leanardo Da Vinci (he draw a helicopter, a glider...) and Jules Verne (submarine, new worlds...). Roddenberry saw the future at a time contemporary technology was only at its infancy (well… that is a sentence one can repeat every couple of decennia I guess), Siri is ‘computer’, the terminal that can be asked for information and adjustment in any Star Trek ship. Always there, always knowledgeable of straight forward facts… Siri makes it so tempting to buy the new iPhone. What an algorithm, sigh…