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Siri Co-Creator Ponders the Future of the ‘Her’ Operating System

Siri, meet Scarlett.

Hollywood has always shown the way to the future. It’s a little known fact that, for decades, the bigscreen inspired many forward-looking technologies long before their day. (The reverse has also been true: Steven Spielberg asked his way around Silicon Valley to find out where technology was likely to be in 50 years prior to filming “Minority Report.”)

My line of business was no exception to this trend. Siri was seriously influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s HAL 9000 character in “2001: A Space Odyssey” as well as the talking computers from “Star Trek” and KITT from “Knight Rider.” I’ll bet David Hasselhoff is using Siri right now.

Of course it’s easier to create a character straight from the imagination than it is to piece together state of the art technologies. I wondered, watching Spike Jonze’s new movie “Her,” is that possible to build right now? Can we really make a dent in solving the “loneliness problem?”

Back in 2007, when my co-founders and I created Siri, we were trying to build the world’s first true virtual personal assistant, to make interacting with your devices as simple as a conversation. Siri was built to get things done.

But then a funny thing happened. Siri blew up into a cultural phenomenon overnight. It wasn’t just a new and easier way to use your phone. Siri was fun. It felt a little human. Millions of people would chat with Siri for hours at a time. Siri was a little bit “Her” before Scarlett was a little bit Samantha.

But the Sexy OS played by the (unfortunately) invisible Scarlett Johansson has a bit more emotional intelligence than Siri does today. Can Siri catch up? Maybe, but don’t hold your breath.

In “Her,” Samantha is a 100% computer intelligence interacting with, getting to know and ultimately creating a strong emotional bond with Theodore. To do this, Samantha needs to not just completely convince Theo that she’s almost human, but also literally charm his pants off. In order to pull this off — and continue to rake in subscription fees — Samantha needs to understand the vast spectrum of elements that make up emotion, conversation and even the ability to observe and share in the world around her. That’s no small feat in the world of smart software.

To get the “That’s incredible!” technology ball rolling, Samantha never made a mistake, never misunderstood nor misheard a word Theodore said. That’s tough to do in a loud, raucous world. Especially in loud places such as the circus scene, where you can barely hear the person next to you, let alone get the exact nuance of every word as you share the pandemonium through an earpiece.

And what about the scene where Samantha is literally spun around, viewing, understanding and commenting on the world she sees only through a jostling cameraphone lens bouncing around in Theodore’s pocket?

That would entail massively scaled real-time image recognition, spatial understanding, facial and mood recognition — as well as understanding the subtleties of thousands of social scenarios in order to predict that the couple sitting at the table were on a first date.

And such a conversationalist! Samantha not only discussed an amazing range of topics with Theodore, but was also incredibly adept at reflecting his mood in her own, varying the subtle tones and verbal inflections that indicate emotion. She even demonstrated an evocative handle on pop-culture terminology when he said in one scene, “No waaay.” And she replied, “Waaay.” Now that is some cool software.

Finally, I don’t even need to mention the complexities of building a program that’s adept at verbal phone sex, including all of the relevant and perfectly timed Meg Ryan-ish sound effects in perfect harmony with the partner on the other end of the line.

Come to think of it, that does sound like a great idea for a company …

Dag Kittlaus is co-founder and former CEO of Siri, which he sold to Apple in 2010. He has seen “2001: A Space Odyssey” seven times.

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