Lists & Rankings

Winners & Losers 2011: The year's passages

History was made both in life and death with such milestones as the passing of Steve Jobs (and the birth of his progeny, Siri) and the retirement of Canada's contribution to space exploration, the Canadarm.

(Photo: NASA/Wikimedia)

Siri: Ten days before the death of John McCarthy, the computer scientist who had coined the term “artificial intelligence” back in 1956, new machine life appeared on global retail shelves. Oct. 14 saw the release of Siri, a personal assistant app for the iPhone 4S that understands natural spoken language. She can make reservations. She can buy movie tickets online. She even knows a few good jokes.

She owes her Scandinavian name to her creator, Norwegian-born Dag Kittlaus. And beyond her skills as a conversationalist, she has other uncanny abilities. She will write your texts for you and remind you to call your dad tomorrow without opening your calendar app.

Siri isn’t the only AI innovation making headlines in 2011. In January, IBM supercomputer Watson—a descendent of famous chess master Deep Blue—defeated two of Jeopardy!’s most formidable players. Watson now has a job with a major U.S. insurer helping doctors diagnose patients.

David Poole, a UBC computer science professor who specializes in artificial intelligence, explains that Watson and Siri treat the Internet as part of their brains, and consequently know more than any human ever could. But their answers are based on what’s popular—and what’s popular isn’t always right. Poole believes the real AI breakthrough will come when machines can conceive original ideas. Until then, you may want to hold off asking Siri for relationship advice.

Canadarm: After 90 trips to space, covering 624 million kilometres in total, the iconic robotic space arm was retired from service in July. Its final trip was aboard the shuttle Atlantis, a journey that also marked the end of the American shuttle program. But 30 years after the arm was developed, at the cost of $180 million, Canada’s specialty in space prosthetics continues, with Canadarm2 and Dextre (a “robotic handyman,” in Canadian Space Agency parlance) on the International Space Station. Meanwhile, the CSA is working on Canadarm prototypes for future space-rover vehicles.

Blockbuster: This was a real hospice case, a terminal illness contracted with the advent of film channels and movies on demand, and worsened by digital downloading. The American arm of the movie-rental chain filed for bankruptcy a year ago, but Blockbuster Canada hung on. When the U.S. business was sold, it left the Canadian operation with a load of debt. A court-appointed receiver pulled the plug on the last 250 Canadian stores this fall.

Steve Jobs: A public life and even more-public death, and still we wonder what made him tick.

Zellers: Ever since Target and Walmart snapped up the leases on about two-thirds of Zellers stores, the 80-year-old discounter has been written off for dead. But almost a year later, it still walks among us, though looking ever more decrepit and vacant as the majority of its outlets stumble toward liquidation. A recent Festive Finale campaign tried to inject some youthful vigour into the brand by tapping social media, offering shoppers daily deals and the chance to pick store music and create commercials. We’re not buying it.