A touch of Siri for those without an iPhone

WolframAlpha.com's goal is "to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone."
WolframAlpha.com's goal is "to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone."
Posted: February 09, 2012

If you don't have an iPhone 4S, as you've probably heard, you can't get Siri. But owners of other smartphones and plain old computers can still get a taste of the same natural-language tools. Some possibilities:

Vlingo. Siri got its start as a stand-alone app before Apple grabbed it for its latest smartphone and removed it from the App Store. Now Vlingo is one of several apps trying to follow in Siri's footsteps.

Vlingo even offers to index your contacts, promising Siri-like integration. You can then use your voice to call, e-mail, or text someone in your address book. And Vlingo promises full integration into Facebook and Twitter, as well as connections to Kayak, Fandango, and OpenTable for help with travel, movies, and restaurants.

Evi. An app whose icon resembles a smiling Cyclops, Evi takes voice commands, does searches, and answers questions, much like Siri, even responding in a similar voice. Like Vlingo, it's free for iPhone and Android users.

But artificial intelligence is only as good as the underlying data. In one test Evi led me to a website, ChaCha, that promises "human-powered answers" - an odd choice for an app billed as "revolutionary artificial intelligence." Not to mention the answer was plainly wrong.  

Wolfram Alpha. A "computational knowledge engine" said to provide a large fraction of Siri's answers, Wolfram Alpha is available at its own website, www.wolframalpha.com. It sets a modest long-term goal: "to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone."

Wolfram advises simplicity in queries: "Just describe what you're interested in; you don't need to explicitly ask a question." Its vast store of knowledge may well have what you're looking for.

The basic service is free. But according to the Tech.Pinions blog, Wolfram Alpha is unveiling a new Wolfram Alpha Pro version this week - $4.95 per month, or $2.95 for students - with a variety of impressive new features.

Start. Described as a "natural language question answering machine," Start has been online since 1993, courtesy of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. It's not quite as omniscient as Star Trek's computer, but much like Wolfram Alpha, it knows an amazing amount. (Find it at http://start.csail.mit.edu)

You can ask Start, "What is the deepest spot in the Atlantic Ocean?" or tell it to show you Claude Monet artwork.

And what about the meaning of life? Ask and you'll get earnest, detailed answers, including 20 dictionary definitions, plus its own version of Siri snark: "The answer is forty-two" - a sly reference to another classic of science fiction: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

- Jeff Gelles


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