Over the High-Tech Rainbow

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Paul Sakuma/AP Images
Apple CEO Tim Cook announcing the iPhone 4S at Apple headquarters, Cupertino, California, October 4, 2011

Three days after Apple’s new iPhone, the 4S, went on sale, the company announced that over four million devices had been sold—a record. It’s safe to say that most of these sales were not made to people who were drawn to the phone’s new and improved physical form, since the design of the iPhone 4S was pretty much a reiteration of last year’s model, the iPhone 4, which sold a record 1.7 million in its first three days. And while some of those four million sales might have been made because of the newer phone’s faster processing speed and improved camera, these were probably not major draws either, since other phones on the market already offered both features.

The real magnet was Apple’s inclusion of Siri, a natural language–processing, artificial intelligence–driven “personal assistant” that interprets and executes a user’s verbal commands like “Make me a reservation for four at the best tapas bar in Dallas” and answers questions about the weather (“Do I need an umbrella?”) and, essentially, allows one to interact with the Internet without typing a word. Most major news outlets breathlessly live-blogged the iPhone 4S launch as if it actually mattered to the world at large, and Siri demo videos are now all over the Internet.

The day after the iPhone 4S was launched, Apple’s founder and resident seer, Steve Jobs, died. One of the most popular Jobs quotes circulating in the days after his death was one that he attributed to hockey great Wayne Gretzky: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey players plays where the puck is going to be.” After three days of record iPhone 4S sales, there’s no better example of playing to where the puck is going to be than Siri. There are other “personal assistant” smart phone apps available. Indeed, before Apple removed it from its App Store, Siri was one of them. But who knew that consumers wanted Siri baked into their phone, and into Apple’s servers, which stores all previous “conversations,” so that Siri gets more and more familiar with its “boss” all the time? Steve Jobs, obviously.

Playing to where the puck is going to be is, of course, a proxy for anticipating and then apprehending the future. At a conference at the MIT Media Lab in October sponsored by Technology Review, engineers, scientists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, students, and corporate spokespeople were engaged in the journal’s annual attempt both to anticipate where the puck will land and, at the same time, push it there. Call it “Optimism Fest,” though the official name of the event is EmTech, which is short for emerging technologies.

There is no way not to feel hopeful, for instance, listening to Ely Sachs, who gave up his MIT professorship to run a start-up called …

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