Everything You Need to Know About Siri Personal Assistant for Apple's iPhone 4S

By Wesley Fenlon

The killer app for Apple's new iPhone 4S and iOS 5 update is Siri, a personal assistant. Think of it as a voice command system on steroids.

Confirming reports that the next iPhone's "killer app" would be a powerful voice command system, Apple dedicated a chunk of its Tuesday press conference to introducing Siri, its new personal assistant. Apple acquired Siri, the developer of an iPhone voice control app, in 2010. More than a year later, the group's work is ready for action.

Apple's billing Siri as more than voice search or simple voice commands. It's an intelligent personal assistant you talk to like a real person. You say "Remind me to call the vet" and Siri sets a reminder for you. And Siri talks back.

Siri responds to questions, so you can ask for restaurants and get a list of Mexican places or pizza joints in the neighborhood. The system also has the ability to look back at earlier requests, so if you ask for a different kind of food Siri will know you're still taking about restaurants.

If it works as described, Siri sounds like a big step beyond strict commands like "Xbox: Pause." It's smart enough to respond to generic comments or requests (like setting up a reminder) or interpreting dictated text messages. The personal assistant ties into your contacts list, so the more information you have for a contact, the better Siri will work.

Initially, Siri will work in three languages: English, German, and French. Apple's also tied the personal assistant directly into Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha for definitions. Its dictation functionality works with third-party apps "so you can update your Facebook status, tweet, or write and send Instagrams."

Siri was born at SRI International, an independent organization originally founded as the Standard Research Institute in 1946. SRI International's Artificial Intelligence Center developed Siri and even launched it on the iTunes App Store in February 2010. Judging by the original Siri press release, much of its core functionality remains unchanged:

Users simply speak to their phones and, just like a real assistant, Siri understands what is said, and executes subsequent actions, adapting to users' individual preferences over time. The result is a tailored, concierge-like experience.

Even if the ideas have endured, the Siri team has had a year and a half working under Apple to improve the personal assistant's voice commands. Siri--which is still listed as beta software--will be exclusive to the iPhone 4S. Here's a list of all the commands Apple has specifically spelled out on the official Siri feature page:

  • Ask for a reminder.
  • Ask to send a text.
  • Ask about the weather.
  • Ask for information.
  • Ask to set a meeting.
  • Ask to send an email.
  • Ask for a number.
  • Ask to set an alarm.
  • Ask for directions.
  • Ask about your stocks.
  • Ask to set the timer.
  • Ask Siri about Siri.