Siri and Apple’s Machine Learning Are About to Get a Lot Better

2 minute read
| Columns & Opinions

Siri, as we’ve know her (or him), has been both a blessing and a frustration. The technology, when it works is brilliant, but when its limitations are exposed, it can be very frustrating. Our appetite for a stellar chatbot companion has merely been whetted, and we’re about to get it. From Apple. On its terms. With privacy.

Siri

A very special article I came across today is a tour de force work of journalism by the esteemed Steven Levy, “The iBrain is Here.” This is must reading for several reasons.

First, it’s important to understand Apple’s technical approach to Siri, neural nets, machine learning, artificial intelligence and user privacy. Second, it’s important to understand that Apple isn’t going to settle for something half-baked or something that ends up being too creepy to bear. The article above explains all that and includes a discussion of Differential Privacy to be introduced in iOS 10. Finally, it’s reassuring to know that, despite the glitz we’ve seen from other companies like Amazon and Google, Apple is serious, well positioned and mindful of how this technology will impact users. Apple is taking a back seat to no one.

Alternatively, a troubling thing I’ve also seen discussed is that we should not get our hopes up for pleasing interactions, via voice, with our computers. In this article at TechCrunch, The new paradigm for human-bot communication,” the author/researchers give themselves some serious wriggle room. It’s almost defeatist.

The good news is that the belief that bots must master human language or replace apps to succeed is false.

I soundly reject that notion. Their lack of vision is staggering.

The Holy Grail is Holy for Siri

The whole point of man-machine voice interaction is to completely duplicate the manner of human-human communication. After all, our kids will be using them too. Anything less would not be the result that Apple, legendary for user interfaces expertise, would want to achieve. The Steven Levy article above reaffirms that goal. Here’s a great section to ponder.

So Apple moved Siri voice recognition to a neural-net based system for US users on that late July day (it went worldwide on August 15, 2014.) Some of the previous techniques remained operational — if you’re keeping score at home, this includes “hidden Markov models” — but now the system leverages machine learning techniques, including deep neural networks (DNN), convolutional neural networks, long short-term memory units, gated recurrent units, and n-grams…. When users made the upgrade, Siri still looked the same, but now it was supercharged with deep learning.

This groundwork is fundamental to Apple’s near term with the iPhone as well as the future, especially when it comes to communicating in tense situations with an Apple car (rumored) or family service robots (hypothetical).

I expect, given the resources Apple and others are pouring into this research, a day will come when many of the stilted, fictional voice interactions with computers we’ve seen in SciFi to date will seem ridiculous. Right now, they’re often seen as a model to shoot for. In ten years, we’ll laugh and laugh till it hurts to see how primitive our expectations were.

And we’ll be surprised to see ourselves in a new light. Not with hubris, eternally superior to the machine. Instead, we may well come to appreciate how to partner with and learn from this new intelligence. It’s going to be a leapfrog affair that will propel us both.

But this also has to be done carefully, and Apple seems to sense that achieving the goal with class, security, privacy and dignity for customers means a lot more in the long run for human culture than simply selling more sugar water.

Aptly, Mr. Levy closes with: “Skynet can wait.”

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aardmanwab95Lee DronickCudaBoyJohn Martellaro Recent comment authors

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aardman
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aardman

The problem with voice recognition, and this just happened to me with iMessages when I tried it again having reading this article, is if you use a new word, it makes a mistake and you have to correct it manually. That defeats the purpose of using dictation. Okay, it’s too much to ask the app to know something it hasn’t heard before, but there must be a way to make the correction also through the voice interface. Now that seems to be a big problem for a silicon mind, how does iMessages’ natural language interface distinguish between a command and… Read more »

wab95
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wab95

John: This was a treat to read. Just a couple of thoughts. First, regarding the perception by some (perhaps many) that Apple are lagging behind in AI development, to some extent this may be a function of confirmation bias enhanced by the virtual echo chamber of social media, and commenters and pundits reinforcing the image of SIRI in its original release (eg MS’s adverts lampooning how ineffectual are Apple’s devices and AI compared to the Surface and/or Cortana). I have been impressed with what are clear ‘under the bonnet’ enhancements to SIRI over the past couple of years, and the… Read more »

Lee Dronick
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Lee Dronick

Long way to go for Apple to catch up to Alexa/Echo. But, just like the Apple car that doesn’t exist maybe someday Apple will get there.

It isn’t who is first out of the gate

CudaBoy
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CudaBoy

Long way to go for Apple to catch up to Alexa/Echo. But, just like the Apple car that doesn’t exist maybe someday Apple will get there.

Member
David Allen Wizardgold

Are you telling or selling Sugar water?

Lee Dronick
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Lee Dronick

“This groundwork is fundamental to Apple’s near term with the iPhone as well as the future, especially when it comes to communicating in tense situations with an Apple car (rumored) or family service robots (hypothetical).”

Yes, I suspect a strong intergration with the car and Apple’s other products. I am also thinking that the car could be in the list of items in Find iPhone no matter if the phone is onboard or not.