Apple’s AI strategies, especially for Siri, aren’t very smart

Apple CEO Tim Cook
AP Photo/Richard Drew

  • Apple dazzled the world with speech-based artificial intelligence when it introduced Siri 12 years ago.
  • Columnist Michael Gartenberg argues that he is now seriously lagging behind his competitors.
  • Siri struggles to understand context and Apple’s culture of secrecy are two reasons for this.

Apple is a technology giant known for its elegant designs, cutting-edge technology, and innovative consumer products. But when it comes to artificial intelligence, especially Siri, Apple has gone from being a leader to a laggard.

Companies like Google and Microsoft – with their investment in OpenAI – have been showing off the amazing progress. Meanwhile, Apple’s efforts in this area have been relatively lackluster.

Siri was introduced to the world in 2011 — 12 years ago — and was hailed at the time as a breakthrough in AI technology. Because it was. However, over the years, Siri has failed to live up to its potential. While the technology has improved since its inception, it has been vastly outdone by Google’s AI efforts and OpenAI.

One of Siri’s biggest limitations is its lack of natural language processing capabilities. Siri struggles to understand conversation context and can only reliably perform simple tasks like setting reminders or timers. Even after all these years, asking Siri to correctly answer a question or dictate a text and send it to the right person is a fluke.

In contrast, OpenAI’s Google Assistant and ChatGPT (built into Microsoft Bing and other Microsoft apps) have advanced natural language processing capabilities. This allows them to understand the nuances of human language and respond accordingly.

For example, when asking Bing Chat to name things it can do that Siri can’t, it has named things like how it summarizes complex political situations or uses it with other search engines like DuckDuckGo.

When asked what it could do that Bing Chat couldn’t, Siri responded with instructions on how to launch Bing by saying “Open Bing.” While I suppose this is true – Bing can’t run apps on the iPhone – it missed the point of the question.

Another area where Siri falls short is third-party app integration. Siri can only perform tasks within the confines of the Apple ecosystem, while Google Assistant and ChatGPT have integrations with a wide variety of apps, allowing them to perform a greater number of tasks.

Apple’s closed ecosystem also limits the amount of data Siri can access. This lack of data makes it difficult for Siri to learn and improve over time, because machine learning algorithms require large amounts of data to work effectively. And while people can (and have argued) about the ethics of how Google and OpenAI use people data to train their AI models, no one can argue that their access to massive amounts of data has allowed them to continually improve AI capabilities.

Moreover, Apple has been slow to adopt open-source technologies, which are essential to AI research and development. Open source technology allows developers to collaborate and contribute to a project, resulting in faster and more efficient development cycles.

But Apple has a long history of secrecy, including with its AI projects, that has kept it out of the loop of cutting-edge research for years. This has changed. In 2015, Apple did not publish any research papers on artificial intelligence. Today, it has a website that publicly shares nearly 370 papers published since 2017. However, Google, which has a long history of open-source sharing, publishes hundreds of research papers on AI annually.

And while Apple also participates in communities like Hugging Face, where AI researchers share the models they use to train AI applications, its participation there has been relatively trivial. He shared 11 templates, compared to Microsoft’s 245 and Google’s 587. Much of Apple’s contributions to other large open-source AI projects, including TensorFlow (a project originating from Google) and PyTorch (originating from Facebook), have targeted modifications that allow developers to run these technologies on Macs. While this is useful (especially for selling Macs to AI developers), it’s not the kind of kumbaya post that the open source community relies on.

In a sign of how stagnant and isolated Siri’s development has become, some Apple engineers have left the company to work on the kind of large language models that support OpenAI, Information said last month.

That said, I offer three things I would advise Apple to do as a technical analyst who has covered the company for nearly three decades, and worked there at one point.

  1. Expand Siri’s capabilities beyond basic commands: Apple must invest in building the capabilities of Siri to handle more complex tasks, such as booking appointments, making reservations, and ordering food.
  2. Improve Siri’s natural language processing: The current NLP for Siri is less advanced than Google Assistant or ChatGPT. Apple could invest in improving Siri’s language-understanding capabilities, making it easier for users to interact with the voice assistant.
  3. Open up Siri: Apple should have done this years ago. Allowing non-Apple software to integrate with Siri will make it much more useful, which will encourage more use, which will help Siri improve. By opening up the Siri platform, Apple can also encourage developers to build more innovative and complex apps that use Siri’s natural language processing and voice recognition capabilities.

Some insiders say Apple is working on all of the above, according to the info story, and plans to release a new and improved Siri in a future version of iOS. We’ll be watching for news about this in June at the upcoming Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.

In the meantime, our Siri is our Siri. And if Apple users want more expansive AI in their lives, they’ll need to get it elsewhere.

Apple declined to comment.

Michael Gartenberg is a former senior marketing executive at Apple and has covered the company for more than two decades as a market research analyst for Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. He is also a shareholder of Apple. He can be reached on Twitter at @employee.

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