It’s been a little over three years since we first met Siri, Apple’s voice assistant that debuted with the iPhone 4S.
Siri can do all sorts of things these days. Though it initially could only handle stuff like calls, texts, music, reminders, and directions, it’s since improved to become an expert in movies and sports, music recognition (via Shazam), restaurant bookings, and more.
And yet, despite its depth of knowledge, Siri still isn’t a true personal assistant. It’s not even a great listener; a recent study shows Siri only returns the correct results roughly 53% of the time, which is far behind Google Now, the personal assistant for Android devices.
Siri is, right now, a glorified question-and-answer robot, not an assistant. But that could, and should, change.
Siri’s biggest problem
If you saw the 2013 movie “Her,” you’ll remember Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the name for the highly intelligent operating system that helps the protagonist Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) sort out his life.
Yes, Theodore falls in love with his virtual assistant, but that’s only because she’s so helpful: She listens to him, and learns from him; she can remember past conversations, and most importantly, she’s a proactive assistant. After familiarising herself with his past emails, she even organizes Theodore’s files and helps him apply for, and eventually land, a major book deal.
Now, if only our personal assistants were this proactive about our own lives.
The fact is, we provide Siri with plenty of information to use, either directly or indirectly. It knows which apps we use most, it can read emails, and it knows that I usually ask about how my University of Maryland sports teams are doing, and how many points LeBron James and Steph Curry rack up each night.
But here’s the problem: Siri has no memory. It can’t remember previous conversations, from two minutes ago or two weeks ago. It doesn’t know my personal preferences; frankly, it even has a tough time deciphering my voice sometimes.
This is not what a personal assistants should be, according to Nuance CMO Peter Mahoney.
“Dialogue is really important,” Mahoney told me last year. “In the original systems that came out, it operated like a search engine. You say something and something comes back, but it may or may not be the right thing. But that’s not how humans work. Humans disambiguate. We clarify… A human who is thoughtful understands your needs, wants and desires — he or she understands you and can contextualize that.”
Siri’s rivals already have a leg up in this regard. You’re able to give Google Now and Cortana access to your personal data like email and calendar, which is particularly helpful since those assistants can read your calendar, and proactively remind you of upcoming appointments. Google Now — which is also available on iOS, mind you — can even lay out your route in Google Maps and let you know when you should leave to get to the airport, and it can even wake you up with an alarm if you fall asleep on your route before your destination. Now that’s helpful.
A matter of time
Mahoney says intelligent systems should, and will eventually be able to, connect all of the information and services available online to better “understand everything that’s going on.” But, this will take some time: Mahoney says recommendation engines are very nuanced, and require lots of learned combinations of relationships, classifications, and genres.
Right now, the results of Siri’s dictation attempts are mostly hilarious, but ultimately annoying when you need to go back and fix several words and phrases. Typing on a keyboard or touchscreen is still better than voice dictation right now.
And, down the road, we’d like our personal assistants to do more than answer simple questions. Siri also needs to be a better listener; nobody likes repeating themselves, and Siri consistently gets words wrong.
These basic issues need fixing, especially since Apple is about to put Siri into more products. It’s already a mainstay on the iPhone, iPad, and iPad, but it will play a big role on the Apple Watch, and rumours say it will also be coming to the next-generation Apple TV product.
If iOS 9, the next version of the iPhone operating system, is going to be all about polish as a recent report from 9to5Mac’s Mark Gurman suggests, I want to see Siri get extra special attention. Even though it’s improved by leaps and bounds in just over three years available, it still sounds unnatural, it’s not a great listener, and it can’t remember anything. Hopefully Siri can eventually become a true “personal assistant,” rather than an inconsistent filter of the web’s knowledge.