If Apple’s typically cryptic invitation to its upcoming media event is any indication, come September 9 we’re going to be talking about some improvements to Siri, the intelligent assistant that’s been a marquis feature of the iPhone since the introduction of the iPhone 4s back in October 2011.
While Siri has, for better or worse, become part of the zeitgeist, its improvements over the last several years have been largely subtle, focused mainly on refining its existing capabilities. While each year has brought a few additional things to ask Siri about, we’ve yet to see a real push for what you might think of as a “Siri 2.0.” So, what might Apple have in store for the intelligent agent?
Smart is as smart does
Siri got relatively little stage time during Apple’s keynote at June’s Worldwide Developers Conference. Mainly, it got mentioned as the intelligence powering the new Proactive features in iOS 9 (which are also, to a certain extent, used by El Capitan’s souped-up Spotlight, but little was said about Siri itself).
While I still really like Siri, there’s still plenty of improvement to be made. Too often it seems as though there are questions the assistant should be able to answer—questions, frankly, that a real, human assistant would certainly have at their fingertips—that Siri seems clueless about, particularly when it comes to context. For example, if I ask Siri “What’s on TV tonight?”—admittedly a bit of an antiquated query in this day and age of streaming—it kicks me to a Google search. But it also can’t tell me when the fourth season of Arrow premieres. (October 7, if you’re anticipating it as I am.) “Can you book me a flight to San Francisco?” yields similarly unhelpful results, as does “Play this movie on my Apple TV.”
Top of the list for Siri improvements, however, has long been integration with third-party apps. To date, Apple’s taken a cautious approach of integrating it with only certain, handpicked partners, but starting with iOS 9, there’s movement for the first time in broader support. Using an API announced at WWDC, developers will be able to let users, for example, trigger Siri to remind them about something in your app—say, for example, a restaurant you were looking at in Yelp. You still won’t be able to tell Siri to check the weather in your favorite weather app, or send a message via Snapchat, though.
I enjoy Siri’s quips about Apple event hints and dividing zero by zero as much as the next person, but I’ll take utility over entertainment any day of the week. And with competition like Google Now, Cortana, and the Amazon Echo, Apple can’t necessarily afford to let Siri lie stagnant.
Hey, Apple TV
Fortunately, it seems like Apple is indeed pushing forward with the voice-based assistant—or, at least, moving laterally. Rumor has it that the new Apple TV set-top box, which is widely expected to make an appearance at the September 9 event, will feature Siri as a core component. But what’s even more promising are the whispers that it will exceed the mere voice-search capabilities sported by Amazon’s Fire TV. That’s an exciting possibility that might for the first time take Siri beyond simply being part of your iOS device.
According to a report in 9to5Mac, Apple’s new set-top box will feature “near-universal Siri control,” which sounds much closer to what Microsoft’s attempted with the Kinect. I’ll admit it: I’m intrigued. Being able to say “Hey Siri, show me what’s on my Hulu watchlist” feels a lot more seamless than navigating through levels of hierarchical menus—and about 100 percent more Star Trek-ish. BuzzFeed is also reporting that Siri will even be able to perform a universal search across video providers, which, if true, would be a huge improvement over the current Apple TV.
But my biggest question remains: Will you be able to trigger Siri with just your voice, à la the Amazon Echo, or will it require a button press, like the Fire TV? I can see that letting Siri listen away might be problematic—my Amazon Echo occasionally triggers when it overhears me watching TV—but it would certainly be handy to be able to say “Hey Siri, pause” instead of fumbling for the remote. But given the microphone set up Apple would need to build into the Apple TV to make always-on-listening work, I’m guessing a press-and-hold approach on the remote is what they’ll go for.
Intelligent agent of change
Even with all the improvements to Siri that we’ll see in iOS 9, the Apple TV, and beyond, we’ve still got a long ways to go before the level of intelligence in Siri is anywhere near the kind of computers we see in TV and the movies, much less anything approaching human intelligence.
Progress, though, is being made—it’s just not necessarily at Apple. A Silicon Valley startup called Viv Labs, founded by a handful of folks who helped create Siri, is aiming to take the voice-based intelligent agent to the next level, creating a system that not only responds to your requests, but also learns without human intervention and is able to synthesize its own connections.
If Apple is truly invested in a future for Siri, it’ll be keeping a close eye on what Viv is doing. These aren’t the kind of improvements that will appear at next week’s Apple event—or even at next year’s—but they are the ones that stand to completely change exactly how we interact with technology.