How innovative is Apple's new voice assistant, Siri?
By Jacob Aron IT LETS you check the weather or make an appointment simply by asking aloud, but is Siri, the “personal assistant” on Apple’s newly released iPhone 4S, really such an advance? Yes, says Boris Katz, an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher at MIT. He says Apple has created a “very impressive piece of engineering” by combining established techniques from fields such as voice recognition and natural language processing. Phil Blunsom, who researches machine learning at the University of Oxford, stresses that Apple hasn’t just put together existing techniques. But he has reservations: “The difficulty is that each one of these systems makes errors, and when they are fed into each other the errors multiply.” Apple won’t talk about Siri’s underlying technology, though a patent application it filed earlier this year reveals that the software manages these errors by restricting queries to specific areas like dining or the weather. Apple calls such themes, for which Siri has access to databases of information, “active ontologies”. For example, the dining ontology contains databases of restaurants, cuisines and dishes, along with information on the concept of a meal – that it involves one or more people gathering to eat. The active ontology idea is not new – Tom Gruber, one of the inventors of Siri, formally defined it in 1995. What is unusual about Siri is that, unlike earlier grand AI projects, it is “very specifically focused on helping in particular domains”, says Philip Resnik, a computational linguist at the University of Maryland in College Park. “If you go out of those domains, all bets are off.” Siri listens out for keywords such as “Mexican” or “taco” to identify the subject area. It also works out whether to prompt for more information – such as what time to book a table – or whether it has enough details to access a reservations website and make the booking. This final step is possible because most web services now offer application programming interfaces (APIs) that let apps feed information to them. “That’s one of the reasons Siri is possible now when it wouldn’t have been five or 10 years ago,” says Resnik. The ability to make sense of requests phrased in ordinary language sets Siri apart from competitors such as Android’s Voice Actions, which requires commands in a certain format – saying “navigate to” will elicit directions, but “how do I get to… ?” will not. It doesn’t look as if Google is planning a Siri competitor yet. “I don’t believe that your phone should be an assistant,” said Andy Rubin, who heads Android development at Google, last week. Siri will only get better. All queries users put to it are processed by Apple’s servers, giving the company a wealth of data it can use to improve the app. Katz suggests Apple could mine this data to discover commonly asked questions that Siri cannot yet handle. That’s simple enough, but what about asking it to “book a meal for my family when we’re all available”? Siri will only get better – all queries are processed by Apple, giving it lots of data to improve the app “Siri 2 might involve taking advantage of the fact that many of the tasks you attempt to solve have a social aspect to them,” says Resnik. So, for example, the Siris on your family members’ iPhones could all work together to organise the meal. Blunsom says Apple must try to keep expectations realistic, otherwise people might dismiss Siri because it “can’t answer esoteric questions,