Siri, Google Now as information retrieval systems

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With Google launching a voice search to compete with Siri on the iOS platform, and Apple being set to launch Siri even on the new Mac OS, I’m led to question the role of such voice based search assistants in the future of information retrieval.

Siri was dubbed as Apple’s foray into the search industry and Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt even acknowledged Siri as a threat. Siri is built on top of the powerful search engine Wolfram Alpha, and then optimized further using strong integration with data and applications existing on the mobile device and external applications like Yelp, Google Maps etc. that aid search.

Since its launch Siri has been dogged with reports of inaccuracies, with some users in the States suing Apple because they feel the system’s capabilities were overstated in the ads. Pundits also criticized that the system has great difficulty understanding accents and speech impediments. But it reflected a big step toward personal information management and retrieval systems. Now, voice based personal assistants like Google Now, Iris, Friday etc have made their way into the market to emulate Siri. Another interesting application that falls in this category is MindMeld which is an iPad application that is designed to interpret what people using it are discussing and instantly deliver useful information about it. For example, if people having a chat conference using the MindMeld were talking about going hiking in Muir Woods National Monument near San Francisco, several windows of data about the attraction would pop up, including a map, a brochure, hiking suggestions, and more. I would like to explore some of the reasons why these assistants could replace traditional search. For purposes of simplicity only I will be using Siri as an example most of the time and I assure you I’m not some kind of Apple fanatic.

One of the most striking features about voice based searches on these virtual assistants is that one relies on a question-answer based search rather than keyword based searches that we have all gotten used to since the inception of web based search engines. Traditionally, the burden of query formulation was on the user and the user had to convert the questions in his mind into keyword-based queries. For example, user would have to type “Restaurants in Berkeley” into the Google search box when he has a question about the restaurants near him. Voice based assistants flip this concept and have a query format similar to the format inside a user's brain: questions. So a user who wants to find restaurants near him, would have to ask the Siri the same thing, “find restaurants near me”.

Furthermore, the use of voice enables users to multitask efficiently while searching. As seen recently with the General Motors announcing that they will be launching Siri in two of their automobiles early next year, which will allow users to perform tasks and searches on their phone without getting distracted from driving. Rather than press and hold the home button on their iPhone, drivers can press and hold a button on the steering wheel to send texts, search the maps for a destination or play music all in the Eyes Free mode, where the screen doesn't switch to those tasks to avoid distraction. The freedom from having to punch keys to type in a query or launch applications gives the user time to concentrate on his core tasks.

The user interface for these assistants is also very simple and intuitive incorporating only the speak button. The results shown are a lot fewer than traditional search with no extra classification and it's mostly one answer(or a small set) per question asked. This eliminates the need to sift through millions of results and provides accurate answers for definitive queries.  Currently, these systems are used for simpler searches but one can imagine a day when Google Now takes search to a whole new level, implemented as an aspect of the Google Search application. Google Now also recognizes repeated actions that a user performs on the device like common locations, repeated calendar appointments, search queries, etc. to display more relevant information to the user. The system leverages Google's Knowledge Graph project, a system used to assemble more detailed search results by analyzing their meaning and connections.

The capabilities offered by these assistants go beyond search and assist users in various tasks like messaging, adding reminders, calculating tips, taking notes and dictation. Using the power of the Wolfram Alpha search engine, Siri answers factual queries directly by computing the answer from structured data, rather than providing a list of documents or web pages that might contain the answer like search engines do. It is also capable of performing calculations on data using more than one source:Example: "What is the fifty-second smallest country by GDP per capita?" yields Nicaragua, $1160 per year. Wolfram Alpha makes inferences from a smaller set of core information or common sense that it has stored in its memory. In this way it has many parallels with Cyc, a project aimed at developing a common-sense inference engine. In everyday life, one can ask Siri, “Calculate a tip for $97” and get the result quickly instead of having to pull up a calculator on the phone and manually punching in the numbers.

Lastly one of my favorite things about these assistants is that they bring personality to regular searching activity. Siri is known be servile yet opinionated and comes up with funny and sarcastic answers tailored to appeal to humans. Not only does Siri accurately recognize our voices but it has a personality to boot.  It’s this personality that makes the app addictive because we start to feel over time that we truly have a personal assistant who is our friend. Yes, we want our personal digital assistants to answer questions for us and we need them to be accurate. But we want them to be personal. We want them to call us “dude” and understand our colloquial slang. We want them to understand us when we speak naturally but we also want them to answer us in kind. Google web search probably has more information about users than Siri, but users will not feel a personal connection with Google as much as they would with Siri. It could be a hateful connection that you feel toward your virtual assistant, but you can all it names, and they will listen to your rants and forgive you without ever fighting back like this