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.
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.”