Hey, Siri: Give me a product development road map for AI

Infighting, rushed development, and lack of vision have damaged Apple’s Siri development, claims a new report, citing Apple employees involved in Siri's development.

Apple, Siri, iPhone, iOS, HomePod, WWDC
Jason Cross/IDG

Infighting, rushed development, and lack of vision have damaged Apple’s Siri development, a new report claims, citing sources involved in Siri's development.

True or false?

The Information cites a dozen former Apple employees for its report. Most would only speak anonymously, which means we can’t be certain the claims are true. We can be sure those claims will gain currency as they speak to the widespread narrative that Siri lags behind other voice assistants, despite research that disputes those assertions.

So, what problems have stymied Apple’s voice assistant?

The report claims Siri development was led by Richard Williamson, assigned to the project by Apple’s iOS chief, Scott Forstall. (Both men were later fired in reaction to the debacle around Maps on iPhone.)

The report claims Williamson made decisions — such as only updating Siri annually — that were opposed by the Siri development team. Williamson blames his old team.

These claims, counter-claims, and subsequent changes in leadership do suggest some problems at the top, the implications of which allegedly mean:

  • Siri was “rushed” to be included within iPhone 4S before it was fully ready — this led to reports of problems using the service as the system was scaled to meet need.
  • One of the problems was a lack of agreement concerning what the software should do —was it a search agent, or was it a machine intelligent assistant?
  • Siri management reflected Apple chaos and infighting after Steve Jobs.
  • Two Siri co-inventors left (to found Viv Labs, later purchased by Samsung) as a result of the internal conflict. (Interestingly, Apple later banned them from attending Apple’s campus to play sports with members of the Siri development team after they quit, in fear of staff poaching.)
  • Apple remains more focused on hardware product design than development of sometimes incredibly complex services.
  • Even today, Siri development seems split into different factions.

We’re told that impact of these various management and strategic changes means Siri hasn’t scaled up. Apple’s cultural secrecy also hampers what the team can achieve. They weren’t informed that Siri would be part of the HomePod system until 2015, for example, or so it is claimed.

Apple disputes the claims

In a statement provided to the reporters, Apple points out the many improvements the company has made in its solution.

“We have made significant advances in Siri performance, scalability and reliability and have applied the latest machine learning techniques to create a more natural voice and more proactive features.

“We continue to invest deeply in machine learning and artificial intelligence to continually improve the quality of answers Siri provides and the breadth of questions Siri can respond to.”

Siri has some significant advantages in comparison to competing systems: it’s way more private, far more secure and can handle 21 languages in comparison to Amazon’s three and Google’s current eight. It also has scale — it processes 2 billion requests every week, and its results can often be improved with a little retraining.

Will Apple open up?

The report can’t tell us what happens next, but the team member’s complaints that the original vision would see Siri become an App Store for AI may well provide a hint as to how Apple will further its vision for the technology.

The sources (who appear very highly placed given the insights they have into historical top team meetings, including with Forstall and Jobs) seem to think the software needs to open up to more use by third-party developers (like Alexa).

The software has uses beyond consumer products, of course: Over half of Europe’s physicians use voice assistants to help them with their work, and these are by no means the only ways in which these technologies could be extended to niche industry use, if anyone were motivated to develop the technologies required to meet the needs of those verticals. That will take motivation and APIs.

Hey, Siri: What about WWDC?

However, Apple’s upcoming WWDC event and the implications of its recent Workflow acquisition make it more likely than unlikely that Apple will introduce new Siri domains within SiriKit later this year.

Apple’s focus on wearable and voice-activated technologies (AirPods, HomePods, et al) should also motivate the company to achieve something along these lines.

Siri development does seem to have become a little more coherent since 2015.

That’s when Apple acquired VocalIQ and began embedding more sophisticated machine intelligence inside the product. Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, took control of the project last year.

Perhaps this year we will begin to see Apple’s Siri teams cohere around some shared visions for the way ahead? 

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