“Hey Siri, text John to say I’m running 10 minutes late.”
It takes only a few seconds to say, but for someone with a disability the same task could take several long minutes. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is powering a revolution for disabled smartphone users and the latest Siri updates announced by Apple show us how virtual assistants could transform the lives of disabled people.
Let your virtual assistant take the strain
Despite the truly excellent accessibility of many smartphones, having a disability can mean that performing tasks is often time-consuming, sometimes tiring and even painful.
For a blind user it can take time to review the screen with speech software – and typing when you can’t see the virtual keys on a sheet of glass hobbles even the most breath-taking of touch-typists. For someone with motor difficulties each tap takes some time and effort. For someone with a learning difficulty, there is considerable thought and concentration that goes into completing every task – and each separate stage in a process is another possible hurdle where one could stumble.
Artifical Intelligence has the promise of turning a multi-stage process (a process that requires that you are familiar with its functions and features and can physically interact with its interface) into a much less daunting one in which you simply have a chat with your device in the same way that you would with an attentive and obliging friend who is ever-ready to help. I say “Promise” as, of course, we’re not quite there yet.
For me as a blind person to send a text to John in the positively old-fashioned way (i.e. unlock my phone, fire up the Messages app, choose John from Contacts and type or dictate the message and finally hit Send) might take two minutes at best. If I can’t dictate the message because I’m in a noisy environment it can take a lot longer – especially if I have a lot to say. To get Siri, my virtual assistant, to do the same task takes only a few seconds.
I know what you’re thinking – what you may even be positively shouting at your screen. “But Siri is about as intelligent as a toddler and half as reliable” you say. And you’d be right. Well, actually I would argue that in many ways a toddler is far smarter but when Siri works well she works wonders and when she doesn’t then you just move on and you’ve only wasted a few seconds in the trying.
For the average user this ‘First try the AI’ approach might on balance be too frustrating. But for many disabled users it’s a strategy well-worth exploring and, as our virtual assistants get ever-smarter, they may eventually find themselves with an ingrained way of working that will save significant time over everyone else who abortively abandoned AI.
SiriKit set to step up the smartness
Due to be released at Apple’s much awaited event tomorrow, iOS 10 will include amongst its features the new ‘SiriKit’. SiriKit will allow many more apps to be controlled by the virtual assistant which in turn will give us much more choice when it comes to doing things the lightning-fast way.
In addition to those current areas where Siri can be helpful (such as finding out information, making a call, asking for a particular song or playlist, sending a Tweet, creating an appointment or setting a reminder) the following categories of app that will initially be supported include:
· Messaging - “Tell John I’m running 10 minutes late using What’s App”
· VOIP - “Call John on Skype”
· Payments – “Send John £10 using PayPal”
· Ride booking – “Call a taxi using Uber”
· Workouts – “Start a 10 minute run with RunKeeper”
It is rumoured that there will be a total of 600 apps that will integrate with SiriKit at tomorrow’s iOS 10launch. The list of supported categories will undoubtedly grow significantly in coming months, as will the number of apps in each category.
Siriously simple to support
It seems pretty straightforward to support Siri’s new capabilities. Developers can readily build an extension within their app that communicates with the virtual assistant. Siri will do all the heavy-lifting - i.e. the difficult job of accurate recognition of the user's speech and the smarts needed to extract their meaning or intent. As a result the app receives a straightforward command to perform a certain task and can then communicate back to Siri for her to display the result.
That’s it. Within a matter of seconds I’ve paid the bill, booked the cab or begun a group video call. And for those inevitable times when Siri lets me down and I have to go the old-style, positively Neanderthal route of labouriously tapping my fingers multiple times on different places on a sheet of glass, I’ll do it gladly in the knowledge that I’ve only wasted mere seconds, that my virtual assistant may well come through for me next time, and that AIs will only get smarter and quicker as the weeks and months go by.
Regardless of how you may personally feel about your virtual assistant, rest assured that disabled users like me are really enjoying the power and productivity they bring. And when our work is done, we can ask Siri for the latest sports scores, quickly catch up with Tweets and posts, find a good place to eat and decide upon the best movie to rent tonight. Just think what we’ll be able to do after Siri’s update tomorrow…
For a full run-down on what’s new in iOS 10 and Siri after tomorrow’s launch check out Apple’s events page and read this TechCrunch article for more information on what SiriKit has in store.
Update: Siri meet Alexa
Newsflash: It looks as if Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa is finally coming to the UK. ETA 14 September.
According to Engadget UK’s breaking article on the Amazon Echo we are soon going to be able to use Alexa to perform a plethora of tasks too. Alexa has a similar set of skills to Siri – actually called ‘Skills’ that a developer can use to teach Alexa to interact with apps and services.
Being blind I feel a particularly sweet anticipation for a completely screenless virtual assistant.
With Apple’s event tomorrow, and the final arrival of the Echo on 14 September, a fruitful future for virtual assistance for the disabled is virtually assured.