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To Win The AI Assistant Wars, Apple Is Melding Siri With Its Other Services

Competing with Alexa and Google’s Assistant isn’t easy, but Apple is moving to broaden Siri’s reach and expand its knowledge about you.

To Win The AI Assistant Wars, Apple Is Melding Siri With Its Other Services
[Photo: Flickr user Toshiyuki IMAI]

Siri has changed quite a lot since its humble beginnings as a question-answering app that Apple acquired in 2010 and built into its phones, starting with the iPhone 4s in 2011. Under pressure from competing digital assistants from Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and others, Apple is getting more creative about leveraging artificial intelligence to broaden Siri’s skill set.

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On Tuesday, I saw a demo of what Siri can do in the connected home. I came away with a greater appreciation for how Apple is positioning Siri as a concierge for all of the company’s devices and services.

Siri will increasingly act as the medium through which users command Apple services and receive information and content from them, like when the assistant reads aloud a text message that’s come in. As I saw Tuesday, Siri can already be used to control an entertainment system in the living room (via Apple TV), the lights in the hallway (HomeKit), infotainment and communications in the car (CarPlay), and music and messaging and in the kitchen (Apple Music, iMessage). It can also set up and monitor workouts for the gym, pool, or running trail (Workout app, Apple Music, HealthKit).

One of the main reasons for Siri’s expanding skill set is that it has wider and deeper access to user data. Until recently, the service could see and leverage only the user data on the device it was running on. But now Siri can leverage data shared by the user with any Apple device–desktop, mobile, or wearable.

For instance, the upcoming Siri Apple Watch face in WatchOS 4 can send reminders for an appointment that was mentioned in an email received in the Mail app running on an iMac at home. In that case—and all others involving personal data—the information about the appointment was encrypted and sent from the iMac through iCloud and on to the iPhone and the Watch. Apple makes clear that it never sees the data or connects it with a particular user’s identity.

Crossing Boundaries Between Services

There are also hints that Siri might one day be able to ask various Apple services to work in concert to deliver useful notifications or other content to the user. While driving to work in a car equipped with a CarPlay in-dash system–a person might ask Siri to check in with HomeKit Hub (on Apple TV or an iPad) to make sure the front door was locked.

Doing that would likely be impossible if your car ran one assistant and your connected home was centered around another. (A surprising number of households now use two or more assistants, some recent research shows, and a large percentage of those people say they’d rather just use one.)

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And that, in a nutshell, is the point Apple is trying to make about Siri versus the other assistants available, like Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. For iPhone users, at least, Siri–in conjunction with other Apple offerings such as HomeKit and HealthKit–might simply control a wider set of important services than competing assistants. As that set of services gets wider, and as Siri can control them more deeply, some users may decide that it’s better to settle on Apple’s assistant.

It’s About Ecosystems

When Amazon’s Echo smart speaker proved that, in many cases, people want to be able to talk to their tech rather than tapping or typing on it, voice-based assistants such as Alexa and Siri took on new importance in the tech platform wars. But this battle is about way more than assistants. A particularly powerful assistant might pull a user toward buying into a whole ecosystem of hardware, apps, and services.

We’re now witnessing a land grab in which assistants are trying to control as many parts of our digital lives as possible. Like Siri, Google and Amazon’s assistants can access and manage messaging, email, and calendar accounts, control the connected home, play music, and perform web searches.

Apple believes it has an advantage because it has complete control over the iPhone, which is still one of the world’s primary go-to tech devices. Amazon controls the Echo and a number of variations on the theme, such as the touch-screen-equipped Echo Show. Google has its Google Home device, a couple of its own Pixel phones, and partial custody of millions and millions of other manufacturers’ phones running its Android operating system. And both the Echo and the Home can now make phone calls after hearing a voice command.

Today, Siri by itself probably isn’t powerful enough to make anybody switch from Android to iOS. And it may never get that far ahead of the other assistants out there. In part, the service is a defensive play for Apple: The company wants to make sure Siri does a passable job, at least, at all of the main jobs that people expect from their assistants.

It’s this defensive posture that led Apple to preannounce its own ambient voice smart speaker, HomePod. It became clear to Apple that its customers want to be able to access their assistant in the way users talk to the Echo, as an ambient presence rather than something tied to a smartphone. By providing that, Apple, in theory, eliminates a reason to keep a competing assistant in the house.

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AI And Siri’s Future

Keep in mind that I’m talking about the strategic directions in which I believe Apple wants Siri to grow. Operationally, Siri is improving but still has its challenges. Building the plumbing that makes Siri able to call up and direct all the different Apple services is a tough, labor-intensive business.

But Apple has made some important changes to the way it’s building Siri over the past few years. A couple of years ago it ditched the Nuance voice recognition and natural language engines it had been using, and began building its own engines in house. Around the same time, the company also made a radical shift away from the rules-based way it had been training Siri to a less structured training method that employs deep neural networks and machine learning. Apple engineers say Siri has made big gains in its language and cognitive skills since those changes were made. Those changes may have planted the seeds of even more impressive gains in the future.

Above all, Apple wants Siri to learn how to help you out in every major aspect of your life. It wants to make tech that eases everyday hassles, helps you get stuff done, and maybe even delivers a little fun along the way. So expect to see Siri increasingly positioned both as an approachable access point into all kinds of Apple services, and also as connective tissue between those services that will lead to some cool and useful hybrid experiences.