Siri Ushers in the Era of the Digital Sidekick

In a recent article for The Huffington Post’s tech section, author Steve Rosenbaum equated the new Siri software found in the latest iteration of Apple’s iPhone with robot sidekicks found in works of science fiction. For those of you who have been, I don’t know, frozen in an iceberg for the last few weeks, Siri is a voice-recognition application that acts as a personal assistant, allowing the user to ask their phone questions and give their phone orders as though they’re speaking to a sentient being.

Unlike many apps that have come before it, Siri has enough common sense to allow the user not to have to speak like a robot themselves (you can say something like “do I need an umbrella later?” as opposed to “show me the weather forecast for blah blah blah”), and can even feign a sense of humor. It’s quite charming actually, and in fact a tumblog has even been establish to showcase the many quirky responses that Siri will dish out when asked questions that it recognizes to be inane or facetious.

I have been aiming to write a similar piece of my own about Siri’s implications to the world of geek futurists, but my conclusion is a tad bit different from Rosenbaum’s. His piece seemed to be a brief overview of the various zany responses that users have coaxed out of Siri and then shared around the Internet, which he then connected together with the tongue-in-cheek claim that now people have robots in their pockets. Which is fine, it’s a good article. But as long as we’re playing this game, I think he’s missing an intermediate step between the iPhone and C-3PO: The Mother Box.

The Mother Box was created by Jack Kirby for the characters in his Fourth World line of comics, characters such as Orion and Miracle Man. The Mother Box was a pocket-sized sentient computer that the heroes wore into battle. It communicates with little “ping ping” atonal sound effects rather than Siri’s flat, female lobotomy patient-style delivery, but it was basically the same idea. It was just an iPhone without a touch screen that could open up booming, violent wormholes in the skin of spacetime to allow for instantaneous intergalactic travel (where’s THAT app?). And Jack Kirby had it a good 40 years before Siri came along. Also, way cooler name, I think.

Or perhaps the new iPhone 4S, with its digital personal assistant app, is less of a pocket-sized robot and more of a pocket-sized TARDIS. Bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space, for the iceberg crowd) is a big blue sentient police box that takes its user, the Doctor, on fantastic journeys through time and space. While not exactly the same thing as an iPhone, it still parallels the basic premise of a magical box filled with possibility. An intelligent companion that will take its user to the ends of the Internet and back.

The phone could also be the cold, sociopathic HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Siri even jokes that “intelligent agents” such as her will never be able to live down his notoriety when the user asks her to do an impression of him. The phone could also be JARVIS from the Iron Man films, GLaDOS from Portal, Cable’s computer arm cube from the X-Men animated series, or that big dumb Shi’ar spaceship that Beast fell in love with, also from the X-Men animated series.

The idea that the iPhone resembles these sentient digital companions is nothing new. Grant Morrison has already played up the similarities between the Mother Box and the iPhone in his various works. My iPhone 3G used to be called “Motherboxxx,” a reference to Morrison’s Mister Miracle mini-series, and was decked out in a red case and a red Mother Box wallpaper to complete the illusion. My iPhone 4 is called “TARDIS,” and it’s outfitted in a blue case with the TARDIS doors as the lock screen wallpaper and the TARDIS interior as the home screen wallpaper. I’m ashamed of none of this, by the way.

When I did it before it was just because I was being nerdy and I wanted to personalize my phone with nerdy stuff. But now with Siri, these similarities don’t seem like that much of a stretch anymore. It feels like this is the direction that Apple was going with the device the whole time.

To be honest, I am not yet in possession of an iPhone 4S, and so I have not had the opportunity to have a hands-on session with the Siri software. My current plan with AT&T might not facilitate such an upgrade anytime soon, but I’m hoping that eventually, by either conventional means or unconventional means, the current Siri app will find its way onto the lesser iPhones. Even though I haven’t had a chance to really fool around with her yet, Siri is something that I have been paying close attention to, as the software and the idea behind it is genuinely fascinating to me.

Rosenbaum jokes that while the rest of us weren’t looking, the late Steve Jobs might have left behind the world’s first consumer robot. With one final push before his untimely passing, Steve Jobs sent our world careening into the pages of science fiction. Because of this, a smartphone has been forever redefined as a phone that can talk back to its user. And this is just the infancy of the idea. Think of what lies ahead for our species as the idea of a personal digital companion box really starts to mature. The world of the superhero could be just over the horizon.

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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