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Practice Innovations - Managing in a changing legal environment
Gray Rule
July 2012 | VOLUME 13, NUMBER 3
Gray Rule
Siri as Reference Assistant?
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»Build It and They Will Come: What Business Are You In?
»Siri as Reference Assistant?
»KM: It's Time to Evolve
»The Future of eBooks in Law Firms and the Future of Libraries
»Impact of New Legal Research Platforms on Attorney Research
»The iPad: How Did We Make Do Without It?
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Siri as Reference Assistant?William P. Scarbrough, Chief Operating Officer, and Penelope A. Turner, Information Services Director, both at Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge, Grand Rapids, MI
Siri represents an amazing step forward in voice recognition and personal virtual assistant technology,  ....

"The most significant advancement of the 4S over previous versions of the iPhone®, and possibly another game changing product innovation from Apple®, is Siri, a virtual personal assistant."

Apple made another product splash, or at least a "splashette," in 2011 with the introduction of its iPhone 4S. While Apple geeks everywhere were hoping for an iPhone 5 with amazing new features in a svelte new package, they instead received a beefed up iPhone 4 that looked exactly like the previous iPhone 4. Nevertheless, Apple has sold record numbers of the new 4S in the United States and abroad.

The most significant advancement of the 4S over previous versions of the iPhone, and possibly another game-changing product innovation from Apple, is Siri, a virtual (and voice activated) personal assistant. Siri can do everything from placing phone calls, to sending email messages, scheduling meetings, providing weather forecasts, and – of particular significance to the law firm library world – providing information and answers to questions upon request.

Siri responds to voice commands, searches the Web, and delivers answers (or possible answers). It is impressive artificial intelligence technology that was developed originally by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The self-standing application, which Apple purchased, may help the company move into the lucrative search market eventually. Siri was introduced with the iPhone, but will likely migrate to the iPad® and other Apple products in the near future.

Could an iPhone replace a law firm reference assistant? In preparation for this article, we put Siri through its (or her) paces by asking a number of actual reference and research questions that the Smith Haughey Information Services team received recently. A sampling follows.

Who are the top ten manufacturers in Muskegon, MI?
(Siri) I can't answer that, but I can search the web for it.
Click on Search Web.
(Seven links down was, which listed six manufacturers.)

Can you locate articles or publications discussing the cumulative effects of head injuries?
That's a good question, now where were we?
Can you locate articles or publications discussing the cumulative effects of head injuries?
I'm sorry, I can't answer that.
What are some articles on cumulative effects of head injuries?
I don't know what you mean.
Click on Search Web.
(Third link was a journal article about repeated head trauma in rats.)

Please locate construction safety experts.
I don't know what you mean by, "Please locate construction safety experts."
Who are some construction safety experts?
I don't know; would you like to search the Web for it?
Click on Search Web.
(Second link was .)

Where is the Grand Haven County Courthouse located?
I didn't find any courthouses.
Is there a courthouse located in Grand Haven, MI?
I don't see any courthouses. Sorry about that.

What is the contact information for Michael Zitta in Grand Haven, MI?
Which "Michael"? (There are eight.)
(Zitta is not in the eight listed.)

Please locate the webinar, "Mastering the Move to Legal Project Management" by the ABA.
I can't search nearby businesses. My apologies.
Find "Mastering the Move to Legal Project Management."
I don't know what you mean by, "Find mastering the move to eagle project management."
Tried two more times, and Siri still didn't get the wording correct. When it did get it right, it said:
Sorry. I don't understand, "Find mastering the move to legal project management"
Click on Search Web.
(First link is ABA page on the webinar.)

Find the phone number for The Grand Rapids Press.
Call The Grand Rapids Press on 155 Michigan Street in Grand Rapids?
(Click No or Yes.)

Find the phone number for Scholten Fant in Grand Haven, MI.
Call Scholten Fant on North 3rd Street in Grand Haven?
(Click No or Yes.)

Find the Michigan Court Rules.
I didn't find any courthouses.
(No Search Web option.)

Who authored "Practical Aviation Law"?
I'm on it.
OK, how about a web search for, "Who authored practical aviation law"?
(Click on Search Web.)
(Six links down was the author's full name, J. Scott Hamilton.)

Find caselaw number 131531.
I don't understand "Find caselaw 131531." Do you want to search the Web?
(Click on Search Web.)
(First link was the case.)

Will an iPhone and Siri replace a well-trained and experienced law firm reference assistant any day soon? Well, no. Based on this very limited sample, the technology worked best when the questions were very specific. Any level of abstraction in the question threw Siri for a bit of a loop. Most of the performance deficiency in this test was the voice recognition aspect (i.e., Siri not understanding the question correctly), but some was the Web search once the verbal question was understood. Siri improves its accuracy the longer it is used by a particular person/voice.

As part of our research for this article, we spoke with Gerry Riskin, a leading law firm consultant and self described Apple fan, at a recent Association of Legal Administrators program in Grand Rapids. Gerry makes extensive use of Siri for basic iPhone personal digital assistant tasks (e.g., sending email or text messages, placing phone calls, scheduling meetings), particularly while traveling (which is most of the time for him). He also uses his iPhone to dictate lengthy email messages for his assistant to format into more formal correspondence. He is amazed by Siri's accuracy and efficiency but admits that answering factual questions via Web search is not yet the technology's strongest suit.

Through our testing, we noticed that using Siri for research purposes makes the user wish the software were installed on an iPad rather than on an iPhone. It would be much easier to read and navigate through the search results that way.

Siri represents an amazing step forward in voice recognition and personal virtual-assistant technology, but law firms should not get rid of their actual (as opposed to virtual) reference assistants quite yet.

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