Siri is due for a big upgrade.
Apple now has the tech in place to give its digital assistant a big boost thanks to a UK-based company called VocalIQ it bought last year.
According to a source familiar with VocalIQ’s product, it’s much more robust and capable than Siri’s biggest competitors like Google Now, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. In fact, it was so impressive that Apple bought VocalIQ before the company could finish and release its smartphone app. After the acquisition, Apple kept most of the VocalIQ team and let them work out of their Cambridge office and integrate the product into Siri.
Before Apple bought the company, VocalIQ tested its product against Siri, Google Now, and Cortana, and the results were impressive. Users asked each AI questions using normal language, not the robotic commands you’re used to using with digital assistants. Those commands can be long and complicated, and the other assistants had trouble catching everything.
For example, imagine asking a computer to “Find a nearby Chinese restaurant with open parking and WiFi that’s kid-friendly.” That would trip up most assistants, but VocalIQ could handle it. The result? VocalIQ’s success rate was over 90%, while Google Now, Siri, and Cortana were only successful about 20% of the time, according to one source.
How VocalIQ works
After writing the program, VocalIQ hired contractors through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to feed the program queries normal humans would ask and help it learn how people talk. These contractors would ask VocalIQ questions from a list of prompts to train the system. After about 3,000 dialogues, VocalIQ already started to get much more accurate. Once the process was finished, VocalIQ had recorded about 10,000 dialogues from Mechanical Turk contractors.
To put that in context, Siri brings in 1 billion queries per week from users to help it get better. But VocalIQ was able to learn with just a few thousand queries and still beat Siri.
VocalIQ may sound similar to Hound, a new digital assistant app that launched on iPhone and Android recently, but Hound only works one session at a time. VocalIQ remembers context forever, just like a human can. That’s a massive breakthrough.
Let’s go back to the Chinese restaurant example. What if you change your mind an hour later? Simply saying something like “Find me a Mexican restaurant instead,” will bring you new results, while still taking into account the other parameters like parking and WiFi you mentioned before. Hound, Siri, and any other assistant would make you start the search session over again. But Vocal IQ remembers. That’s more human-like than anything available today.
Because VocalIQ understands context so well, it essentially eliminates the need to look at a screen for confirmation that it’s doing what you want it to do. That’s useful on the phone, but could be even better for other ambitious projects like the car or smart speaker system Apple is reportedly building. (VocalIQ was being pitched as a voice-controlled AI platform for cars before Apple bought the company.) In fact, VocalIQ only considers itself a success when the user is able to complete a task without looking at a screen. Siri, Google Now, and Cortana often ask you to confirm tasks by tapping on the screen.
It acts like a real assistant, not just voice search
VocalIQ’s platform is also malleable enough to be programmed for anything you want to do. One example a source gave was teaching it to successfully manage email while a user’s phone was in their pocket. (Just like Joaquin Phoenix’s character controls his phone in the movie “Her.”) In theory, Apple would be able to train Siri to do everything much better using VocalIQ.
VocalIQ can also filter out extraneous noise to figure out exactly what you’re saying, thus making it more accurate than Siri is today. It’s able to take in all the noise in an environment — the TV, kids shouting, whatever — and determine with a high probability which sound is actually the user’s query. It can even learn to adapt to different accents over time to improve accuracy. If you’ve ever had trouble getting Siri to understand you, then you know how important this is.
It’s still unclear when Apple plans to implement more of VocalIQ’s capabilities into Siri. One source speculated that it may happen slowly over time, so as not to throw off users with a radical change. But it sounds like Apple is arming itself for a significant shift in how Siri works.
Apple declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Siri is about to get some other improvements this year. According to Amir Efrati of The Information, Apple will open up Siri to developers, similar to the way Amazon has opened up its Alexa assistant. That means third-party apps will let you start using your voice for some tasks. (“Siri, call me an Uber,” for example.)
Recently, there have been doubts about Apple’s artificial intelligence efforts. At its big annual conference in May, Google showed off some intriguing new uses for its AI, including Google Home, a smart speaker with its digital assistant built inside. Marco Arment, a well-known developer and big voice in the tech community, wrote on his blog that if Apple fails to keep up with AI and voice-powered platforms take off, the company risks suffering the same fate as BlackBerry.
But it sounds like Apple isn’t sitting still while its competitors go all in.