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Siri, How Smart Is Smart?

Apple iPhone 4S, Part 2: Battery, Camera, And Display Quality

Siri, a new automated voice control system, is probably the most discussed feature to find its way in Apple's iPhone 4S. Think of it as a virtual butler. You hold down the home button and you're prompted to speak. For a comprehensive list of the functions Siri can perform,  check out’s post.

We've already seen a number of parodies demonstrating Siri's various limitations. However, we're more interested in the mechanics of linguistics and intelligence. So how does it work?

First, we should clarify that Siri isn't just an app. Provided you're asking questions and not giving commands, Siri is a service that interfaces with Apple's servers to find a response. As such, the "intelligence" behind Siri may change over time as the company optimizes its code.

Let's get the obvious out of the way. Is it smart? Well, no. it won't pass a Turing test.

Syntax matters a lot. I've spent the better part of a day experimenting, and Siri definitely prefers the English standard of subject/verb/object, as opposed to object/subject/verb or object/verb/subject. Basically, don't talk like Yoda.

Questions, commands, or statements that contain extra or unessential words confuse Siri.

Whenever you ask a question, Siri checks to see if it contains a keyword. This list of keywords only takes precedence over general syntax rules when Siri doesn't recognize the string of words as a question. 

A given keyword sets off a function like looking up the weather. So far, we've worked out that this list includes: clothing, weather, food, restaurants, hospital, and clinic.

We know it's a keyword-based search because we can use complete nonsense using a random word generator and still get a result. No grammar or logic is needed for this type of "intelligence."

Some proper nouns are also included in this list.

Provided your syntax is correct and is structured in the form of a question, Siri seems to lock in on the word "you" in order to recognize when it should provide eight-ball-style answers.

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