By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
October 9, 2011

An analyst may have put her finger on the conversational interface’s killer app

In a note to clients issued Friday, Cross Research’s Shannon Cross pivots from the Steve Jobs eulogies to take a closer look at Siri, the natural language interface that Apple AAPL unveiled the day before he died.

In particular, she singles out an application that wasn’t in Scott Forstall’s demos or Apple’s slick promotional video, but which fits perfectly into Jobs’ final hobby: television. She writes:

One interesting application of the Siri technology would be with Apple TV (either the existing device or actual TV’s that Apple may launch). We think this would solve the industry’s difficulties with remote controls… We think it would be very compelling to own a TV or a device that could quickly answer the request, “I want to watch the Yankees/Red Sox game,” by changing the TV channel without requiring the user to look at a guide or use a remote control, or even specifying HD or standard definition feeds, since you would want the HD channel if available. Or, you could instruct the device to record all new episodes of a show, without leaving the program you are currently watching. Finally, since you are online, a Siri enabled TV could answer whether your iPhone or computer has received a new message, and let you respond accordingly.

The artificial intelligence in Siri — the product of a five-year, 300-researcher DARPA project called CALO — may not be mature enough to understand half of what users are going to ask of it when it gets released later this week (see Will the iPhone’s Siri have its ‘Egg freckles’ moment?), but making sense of the commands grunted by couch potatoes and navigating TV Guide’s database are almost certainly within its ken. And as Cross points out, when Siri is installed across all of Apple’s iOS product line — including its current and future TV devices — the need for a physical TV remote might finally disappear.

TV, however, is only one possible application for Siri, which tapped into a broad range of databases even before Apple acquired it, including, according to Wikipedia:

“We believe,” Cross concludes, “the use of natural language and potentially the ability to distinguish between voices could one day change the way we interact with electronic devices and provide a substantial technology advantage to Apple. Quite simply, we have not seen a demonstration of comparable AI in any other consumer system. As a result, we think it will be difficult and time-consuming for Apple’s competitors to match Siri’s level of AI. Microsoft MSFT appears to be focusing on gestures (Kinect) while Google GOOG seems to have focused on advanced translation. Enterprise level applications, such as IBM’s IBM Watson, would appear to be the obvious hope for licensing by Apple’s competitors, as it would lend itself to the hybrid hosted and local implementation that Apple has chosen for Siri.”

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