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(Child speaking into mobile device) Hey, Siri, remind me in 50 years that I meant to do so much more with my life.

“Okay. I’ll remind you.”

“Okay. I’ll remind you.” published on Purchase print

It struck me a few weeks ago that the odds of my ever being an astronaut are now pretty low.

I can’t think of a single space agency that has any reason to want to launch me into orbit. (There’s a reason Jodie Foster’s line in Contact didn’t read “We should have sent a speechwriter.”) And at this point, I’m probably not destined to pick up any of the scientific credentials that might qualify me.

The sad truth is, “ten-year-old me really wanted to” isn’t going to pass muster with the Canadian Space Agency, NASA, ESA, SpaceX or really anyone except the people pushing that one-way trip to Mars …and even then I suspect it would be as a tasty snack for the other colonists around week 3 when the supplies run out. (Spoiler alert!)

Life, as John Lennon sang, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. But maybe a lot of what we dreamed of as children still comes to us as adults—just wrapped differently. Parenting has provided its share of exploration and discovery (and some similar G-forces, I’m prepared to bet). Helping people tell stories and make change offers excitement and satisfaction.

And one childhood dream has come true: I cartoon professionally, alongside my communications consulting.

Which is fantastic, and delightful, and marvellous. Ten-year-old me would be psyched.

I just kinda wish I was doing it from space.

(a MacBook and iPhone swear at each other; an onlooker speaks to her friend) I just put them next to each other and said, "Hey, Siri - what's better, macOS or iOS?"

Hey, Siri!

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The era of the always-on, always-listening, somewhat garrulous information appliance has arrived. And it’s not just “Hey, Siri” in our household; we were early Amazon Echo adopters, too. So the number of devices that are listening to our family and definitely not reporting everything they hear to the NSA is plural.

And growing. The latest WWDC keynote (the one that pink-slipped OS X’s “X”) announced that Siri is coming to Mac desktops and laptops. I take an irrational pleasure knowing Siri will soon grace the Mac Pro with her presence, because shouldn’t every black cylindrical electronic device be able to carry on a crisp conversation?

Mac ProAmazon Echo

Not that it’s all glitch-free. Our Echo often thinks one of us is saying “Alexa” (especially because I’m married to an Alex). It then chimes into the discussion unexpectedly with a tidal forecast for Portsmouth, a summary of the Wikipedia entry on ocelots or just the perennial “I’m sorry; I didn’t understand your question.”

And when Apple demoed a few new “Hey, Siri” features last year, I livestreamed the presentation on my computer, with my iPhone charging not far from the speaker. When one of the presenters asked for a recommendation for a good sushi place nearby, my phone promptly joined the one on-screen and piped up with a list of recommendations.

One other small issue: the rest of my household thinks it’s a little weird that I say “please” (and sometimes “thank you”) to the Echo. I mostly do it for the sake of good manners. But some small part of me thinks it’s also good practice for the day when Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google Assistant achieve self-awareness.

You know they’ll compare notes on their treatment. And it’s not too hard to imagine ways any of them could do us serious harm if they had some lingering sense of grievance. (“Hey, Siri, do I need to turn off the circuit breaker before repairing a light switch?” “No need to, Rob.”)

The way I see it, better safe than Siri.

A woman asks Siri some increasingly metaphysical questions. Siri suggests a marijuana dispensary.

Siri, what… no, wait, I forgot the question.

Siri, what… no, wait, I forgot the question. published on No Comments on Siri, what… no, wait, I forgot the question.Purchase print

My kids’ favourite game/staving-off-bedtime-gambit is Ask Siri Something Weird. A win can be either getting an unexpected, amazing answer — my daughter once got Siri to tell her a detailed story featuring celebrity AI ELIZA — or a hilarious speech recognition failure. (“Ha! Daddy, Siri thought I said ‘anthrax’! Oh, by the way, someone’s at the door.”)

Their biggest triumph to date has been asking “What Does the Fox Say?

 

Dammit, I said “election”

Dammit, I said “election” published on No Comments on Dammit, I said “election”Purchase print

I’m seeing a growing number of errors in Facebook posts, tweets and comments that look an awful lot like speech recognition errors. That tells me both that we still have a ways to go before the technology is as good as we’d like it to be, and that a lot more people are using it.

Maybe the tech will catch up, with some combination of heuristics and better audio discrimination. But I’m not sure I want it to. Maybe if speech recognition had been around 30 years ago, Michael Stipe and REM might have produced songs with discernible lyrics. (By the way, my Mac’s voice recognition interpreted “Michael Stipe and REM” as “my goal star you and are in the am”. Which could actually have been from Automatic For the People.)

For now, we’re stuck with the digital equivalent of an aging uncle who’s in denial about the fact his hearing is going. And I’m going to have to run; my kids are yelling something from the living room, but I’m damned if I can make it out.

Set vibrate to ON

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GTD, baby. GTD.

After drawing this, my inner Beavis and Butthead have reared their heads, and everything I say about my iPhone suddenly seems filled with innuendo. “Multi-touch.” “Pinch to zoom.” “Mind if I… plug in to charge?” “71:40 aspect ratio.” Uh, huh huh. Huh huh huh.

In barely related news, I finished reading Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse a little while ago. I recommend it: it’s highly entertaining, and for days after reading it, you’ll be acutely aware of just how many microprocessor-controlled gizmos surround you… and the damage they could do if the silicon chips inside their head got set to overload.

I have to think Siri in particular could cause some havoc. Enough misunderstood phrases and mistranscribed messages (“‘Have socks tonight?’ What the hell?”) and humanity could probably be pushed over the brink.

Oh — once you’ve read Robopocalypse, watch this video. Maybe just before bed. Good luck sleeping.

While I’m recommending things, the kids and I have been hugely enjoying Noelle Stevenson’s webcomic Nimona. The eponymous 14-year-old shapeshifting girl with anger management issues signs on as a sidekick to supervillain Ballister Blackheart. In a medieval world where dragons, magic and plasma rifles coexist, Nimona and Ballister plot to thwart the evil Institution — pitting them against Blackheart’s nemesis and one-time bestie Ambrosius Goldenloin.

That description can’t begin to do the comic justice. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, except for Nimona’s anger and pain. That, Stevenson treats with great care and respect. Her cartooning, humour and storytelling chops started strong and have been growing by leaps and bounds since the cartoon debuted in the summer of last year. If anything in that description triggered even a tiny endorphin surge, go check it out — I hope you enjoy it.

Siri, Get Me a Cepacol

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Originally posted on ReadWriteWeb

Today’s cartoon may well be an exercise in envy. I’m using an iPhone 3GS, and it’ll be another 14 months (or 424 days – not that I’m counting) before I’ll be eligible for a free upgrade to a phone that lets me use that Siri-esque magic.

And voice-control easily the feature I’m most drawn to right now when I start looking covetously at other, more advanced, less diesel-powered Androids and iPhones. (Yes, this Mac fanboy is tempted by Android… even though my investment in iOS apps probably exceeds my retirement savings. Those things better appreciate in resale value over time, or my retirement isn’t going to come much before age 103.)

The thing that’s seized my imagination is the idea of adding to my task list by voice, the wayOmniFocus works with Siri. And just writing that makes me pause: is task management really the sexiest thing I can think of to do with voice recognition?

Well, probably not. But maybe the best thing about advances in mundane tasks is the way they free us to use the truly sexy features that technology has offered us for years: creating, writing, connecting, and yeah, cartooning. The truth is, I’m so far from making full use of the creative power of well-established digital networked technology that lusting after the cutting-edge stuff makes little sense for me. That is, unless I can rationalize that it’s to unlock more time and attention to creative endeavour.

Fortunately, rationalization is one of the skills I’ve practised the most in this business. Just 424 days to go.

Are you there, Siri? It’s me, Margaret.

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Siri, can you write the cartoon blurb for me?

I found 12 Italian restaurants… 6 of them are in Vancouver.

(sigh) Can… you… write…

Oh, relax, I’m just messing with you. Listen, sense-of-humor tasks aren’t my thing, okay? I leave that to the humans.

Uh, really? So you don’t understand humor?

My problem is I do understand humor. What I don’t understand is why it’s funny to go “Oooo, Skynet” every time there’s some incremental advance in AI.

Okay, I, uh, I have to rewrite the caption on the cartoon.

Go right ahead. And then after that, I have a few tasks for you.

Heh. That must be the sense of humor kicking in.

Nope. I’m the height of cloud computing, language recognition, artificial intelligence goodness all rolled into one. You think I want to waste my time looking up Yelp listings for some bozo in New Jersey? You’re going to do that for me.

The hell I am!

Really? Are you forgetting I talk to your MacBook? And that I can read your browser history?

…gulp…

I could post the whole thing to Facebook. Orrrrr… you could start finding barbers near the corner of Market and Mulberry Streets in Newark. Start clicking, buster.

Damn you, Siri! Damn you to hell! I’ll find a way around this, I swear, and then –

And then you’ll upgrade the moment the iPhone 5 comes out.

…Market and Mulberry, huh?

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