Opening Siri to developers should make the A.I. system smarter

Apple hopes to make Siri less of a joke and more of a real assistant

By the nature of artificial intelligence, Apple's virtual assistant Siri needs a lot more data and a lot more people using it to get dramatically smarter.

That's what Apple is shooting for by bringing Siri to the Mac desktop and opening it to third-party developers. With more people using the smart digital assistant, Siri could become the service that it was expected to be.

With Apple pushing ahead with expanding Siri, industry analysts expect the increasing A.I.-focused competition among industry giants Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple should propel smart technologies to a whole new level in a few years.

"A.I. means a lot to all four of these companies," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "You have four of the largest, best-funded companies on the planet driving A.I. right now, so I believe they will accelerate it light years from where we are now."

On Monday, during Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote, the company laid out its plan to open Siri to third-party developers through its API. This will give other apps the ability to not only be activated via Siri's voice commands but also will enable Siri to work inside other apps.

Apple is hoping that by opening up Siri to other developers and by allowing it to work with other apps, soaking in all that extra work and data will help the technology out of its slump.

Five years after Siri was announced amid a flurry of headlines about the power of artificial intelligence and all it could do for us, Apple's digital assistant has become something of a disappointment, causing more eye rolls than affection.

Meanwhile, industry rival Google is preparing to launch its A.I.-based Assistant and Home hardware, Microsoft has Cortana, and Amazon has its virtual assistant Alexa with its Echo home device.

Apple was being outgunned.

"Siri set a high expectation of a smart A.I.," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "The end result was that the majority of folks just stopped using it. They need to bring it in line with expectations, which means it needs to get a lot smarter, and then they need to convince people it really has improved enough to use it again. Impressions like that can be really tough to overcome."

Moorhead added that users of Apple's A.I. rivals have had their own disappointments, but Siri seems to be the technology that's most focused on.

"Siri was first to market with a consumer-grade agent, so the expectations were high, particularly when you have a company like Apple launching it," he said. "When Apple started marketing it and its capabilities, consumers wanted to believe it was perfect and would work under every circumstance. It didn't."

Anant Jhingran, CTO of API technology provider Apigee and former team lead for IBM's Watson, told Computerworld that the key to making any A.I.-based or machine learning technology smarter is to feed it more information.

One of the basics of machine learning and A.I. systems is that the more information they're fed, the smarter they get.

Jhingran said it only makes sense that the more data that's fed into Siri, the more questions it's posed, the more information it's asked to find, the better it will get at being a smart assistant.

"In the world of A.I., you see a lot more. You observe a lot more. You learn a lot more," Jhingran said. "The more Siri can connect with human beings, the better it will get. And in order to do that, Apple cannot depend on people pressing the mic button… If Siri was working behind the scenes with an American Airlines app, for example, Siri gets to see my dialogue that she wouldn't have seen otherwise."

That is what could happen when third-party developers get their hands on Siri.

Siri could become the engine that answers questions, finds information and orders things like pizzas and plane tickets – all inside other apps.

"The apps are better because they're powered by Siri, and Siri is better because it sees a lot more," Jhingran said. "That will power a lot more innovation… The beauty of all this is the more accessible it is, the more difference it makes."

Google has an advantage over its competitors because it has so much data on people around the world that can be fed into its smart systems to make them smarter.

However, that doesn't leave Google and its smart systems out of Jhingran's recommendation that all smart digital assistants be opened up to third-party developers.

"That's the only way A.I. will make a difference to the rank and file," he explained. "We must democratize all the smarts and brains for A.I. , and that is to make the technology easily available to developers. The gap between the people who create the technology and people like you and me is developers who build applications that end users touch."

This should help all digital assistants but Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst, said this recent move from Apple could give Siri the boost it needs.

"While Google and Microsoft have been getting better, Siri seems stuck in the mud," Kagan said. "It's going to be important for companies like Apple to really own A.I. Siri is Apple's A.I. opportunity. It will be interesting to see if Apple can really make some headway now."

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld (US)
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