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Apple’s risky bet on voice-driven television

According to BuzzFeed’s big scoop Wednesday, customers who pony up $150 for the new Apple TV will be able to ask their set-top box to search all available entertainment options with queries like this:

  • Hey Siri, show me “Mr. Robot”
  • Show me a Woody Allen film
  • Show me something starring Kristen Stewart


This could be huge. Finding the gem you want to watch in a 500-channel haystack was bad enough. Now you also have to know if a video is on Hulu, Netflix (NFLX), Amazon Prime (AMZN) or what.

Universal search with Siri voice commands could be the breakthrough TV watchers have been waiting for. Or it could be a bust—just the kind of thing Apple’s critics and short-sellers love to pounce on. Remember the misplaced landmarks on Apple Maps? Remember, god forbid, the much-mocked handwriting recognition system on Apple Newton?

The fact is, human-machine interfaces are hard. There’s something deep in the human psyche that wants communication with our thinking machines to be as natural as talking to another human. But there’s something even deeper that is creeped out when a humanoid machines fails.

462988538338Its pitfall psychologists call the “uncanny valley.”

From IEEE Spectrum:

“More than 40 years ago, Masahiro Mori, then a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, wrote an essay on how he envisioned people’s reactions to robots that looked and acted almost human. In particular, he hypothesized that a person’s response to a humanlike robot would abruptly shift from empathy to revulsion as it approached, but failed to attain, a lifelike appearance.”

Siri is as humanoid an interface as Apple has dared release, and iPhone users learn its limits pretty quickly. But now the company is promoting Siri as the interface by which TV viewers communiciate with their favorite medium: Television.

If it works, it could be great. If it doesn’t, watch out!

Below: Apple’s Siri ads.

Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter at @philiped. Read his Apple (AAPL) coverage at or subscribe via his RSS feed.