What Siri Really SHOULD Be – Part I

Siri leaves a lot to be desired. Here are my thoughts on what Apple’s introduction to AI really should be.

I recently read an article at a major, pro-Apple website that said that if Steve Jobs were still alive, he’d absolutely hate Siri (as currently implemented). Given what the general public knows about Steve, I’d have to agree. While CLEARLY labeled a beta effort, Siri leaves a bit – ok… a great deal – to be desired. With Apple’s WWDC event coming up, and the opening keynote, presumably given by Tim Cook, I think its important to expect some major developments related to Siri as a precursor to the introduction of Apple’s 6th generation iPhone, currently expected in October 2012. I’ve got a couple of ideas on what needs to happen to Siri, and what the digital AI/assistant really should do. Let’s take a quick look in this multipart series…

Beta-Be-Gone

The iPhone is revolutionary. The iPad is a magical device. The iPod/iPod Touch completely transformed and modernized the music industry (even if it did go kicking and screaming into “that good night”). Apple has done some extraordinary things with its products over the years, and I haven’t even come close to listing them all.

The beta label currently attached to Siri, Apple’s artificial intelligence powered digital assistant currently ONLY available on the iPhone 4S, needs to go.

And it needs to go YESTERDAY.

What does this mean? Simple – Apple needs to stop whatever its doing as far as iOS development is concerned and ring the all hands bell and rally the resources around Siri and finish the damn thing.

Siri has some major bugs and some major holes that need to be plugged and the biggest is that it needs to become, at the very least, a 1.0 released product ASAP. This means that its recognition engine needs to come out of the garage and join the rest of the iPhone in the spotlight – meaning it needs to be finished and improved…for all supported languages.

I’d like to be able to be John Malkovich, and have a one word conversation with Siri through my iPhone 4S; but its not currently possible. I don’t have any kind of speech impediments; and I’ve lived in the Midwest US most of my life, meaning I don’t natively have any accent to my English as a first language, voice. Siri should understand just about everything that I say; and she doesn’t.

I make simple requests now and again – what’s the weather like, will it be chilly the rest of the week, remind me to pick upat the grocery store when I leave the train station, or something as simple as, Siri, call myetc.

I often get, “I’m sorry, Christopher. I didn’t quite get that,” or, “I’m sorry; but I can’t do that right now.” This morning when I asked if it would be chilly the rest of the week, Siri responded, “Ok Christopher, which Beth would like like to call?” and then presented a list of 5 people named, Beth or Elizabeth out of my contact list. I checked. It correctly grabbed and displayed the right question, “will it be chilly the rest of the week?” I looked more than once to confirm it; but instead Siri asked me which Beth I wanted to call.

What?! Really? REALLY?

If its not something totally off the wall like that, the Siri simply doesn’t understand what I’m saying. Blurring the words, “wife” and “life” is sort of understandable. I often get “What do I call my life?” instead of “Siri call my wife,” or something similar. Its really ridiculous. I don’t have anything in my mouth when I talk, and as I mentioned, I don’t have any kind of speech impediments or thick accents that would make my speech difficult to understand, and yet Siri and I don’t seem to see eye to eye on a number of things.

These basic comprehension and speech recognition issues have to be resolved immediately, or else the device is never going to be able to make reliable use of the digital assistant at all. If Siri has trouble understanding even the most basic of questions or commands in the car, in a room with moderate to low volume or even in a quiet room (I’ve encountered my problems with Siri in all of these locations), then Apple may as well hang it up and kill the feature.

Its getting a bit silly, really. This is the feature’s basic functionality and I can’t rely on it for anything at this point.

Support for Bluetooth and other External Microphones

As I mentioned in part 1 of this multipart series, Siri has some serious comprehension and recognition issues that need to be resolved in order to break it out of its beta label and become a full-blown 1.0 feature.

As either part of that effort or in a separate update, Siri needs to really support use through a wireless headset and other external microphones. Right now, while use via a wireless mic is possible, the recognition and comprehension issues that Siri has when used with a wireless headset really prohibit that interaction.

This is a huge problem, as I know many people that use an iPhone often do so with a wireless set of headphones or a wireless headset (or both in a single unit). They may also use Apple’s included set of wired ear buds. Siri’s recognition quality through all of these leaves a bit to be desired.

The Bluetooth and wireless microphone issues with Siri are mostly well documented and widely reported. The entire tech journalist world has been ripping clothes, wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over Siri’s inability to understand most anything when used in conjunction with any other microphone other than the hardwired mic in the iPhone itself. Recognition quality through Apple’s own wired headset isn’t completely horrible, but isn’t as accurate as it is via iPhone’s built in microphone.

Most of the people that I know use their iPhone with a wireless headset. Let’s face it – Apple’s wired headset is ok, but the wires constantly get hung up on something and one of the first purchases most everyone with an iPhone makes, is a wireless headset or hands free kit for the car.

Bluntly put, if Siri can’t accurately, reliably, consistently work through a headset, then the feature is never going to get used while a user is on the go, defeating the need for it – nearly – all together.

I recently saw the two new John Malkovich iPhone 4S commercials and decided to give Siri another go. As I mentioned in part one of this series, it was a waste of my time. Siri muffed the job entirely, despite understanding what I had said.

Removing a headset or wireless mic from the picture to help improve recognition reliability and accuracy isn’t realistic either. I’m not going to turn a headset off, wait for the iPhone to realize that it’s no longer paired with the headset and ask Siri my question and then turn it back on and repair my headset, just to give Siri the best chance to do her job right. THAT’S totally unrealistic and totally silly. I think I can actually HEAR Steve rolling over in his grave as I mention that. (No disrespect intended; but THAT would totally drive him nuts, based on what I learned about him while reading his biography from cover to cover.)

So, in order to get Siri correctly implemented as a usable feature, Apple needs to do two really big things:

  • Improve Siri’s general reliability, accuracy and comprehension (no small task)
  • Have all that work regardless of whether I’m speaking to her through the iPhone’s built in microphone, Apple’s included, wired headset, or a Bluetooth headset or hands free car kit.

Get that done, and done well, and I’d call that Siri 1.0.

Come back next time, and I’ll go into what features Siri should really provide once the bugs are ironed out.

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