Siri may get quite the upgrade pretty soon

30 May 2016

Apple’s customer assistant Siri is one of the longest-standing digital aides out there – and it’s about to get a whole lot more impressive.

Apple has been acquiring a number of interesting AI and machine-learning companies in the past year, revealing little about what it plans to do to them in the short, medium or long term.

Just four months after its creation, mapping data analytics start-up Mapsense was bought by Apple last September. This deal was followed by the acquisition of VocalIQ, the UK company described as a ‘natural language company’, originally thought to be tailor-made for the development of the Apple car.

Soon after that, it snapped up Perceptio, a company that specialises in what’s called ‘deep learning’. As Bloomberg noted at the time, before the deal Perceptio was set up to develop techniques to run AI image-classification systems on smartphones, “without having to draw from large external repositories of data”.

Word gets around

Now, a full seven months later, we’re hearing what those deals were about, the VocalIQ deal, in particular.

According to Business Insider, which quotes a source familiar with the matter, VocalIQ’s virtual assistant is a huge improvement on competitors like Siri, Google Now, Amazon’s Alexa or Microsoft’s Cortana.

The improvement sounds remarkable. So, for example, when asking it to ‘Find a nearby Chinese restaurant with open parking and Wi-Fi that’s kid-friendly’, VocalIQ could handle it 90pc of the time.

Those competitors? Around 20pc. Apple heads liked what they saw, and bought VocalIQ before the company could finish and release its smartphone app.

Business Insider’s report claims that changing that ‘Chinese restaurant’ request just marginally, to ‘Find me a Mexican restaurant instead’ will adapt your original request. It remembers your previous request, which has not been possible before.

All systems go

Earlier this week, Apple made the surprising move to open Siri up to developers to tinker with, as well as create an Amazon Echo-like home assistant.

Getting developers to play around with Siri, and find new applications with which it could work, is a sure-fire sign of something cool coming down the line. Given it’s Apple, that ‘something cool’ could well be a dramatic improvement on what’s gone before.

Siri’s creators are no longer involved with Apple, leaving a while back and recently revealing their own Viv assistant. That, too, was seen to have similar improvements on some of Siri’s limitations.

If the in-house VocalIQ integration can do even better, then Apple’s acquisition game is pretty sharp. With home assistants and Apple cars on the way, it also gives the company a real USP going forward.

Siri image via Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic