Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference promises some exciting new Siri developments, but Apple must attend to its Siri-ous problems first.
Apple will host its Worldwide Developers Conference next week, and rumors are flying about its Siri voice assistant technology. One of the most intriguing ones is that Apple will let developers work with Siri via an API. Another is that Siri will soon live on your iPad and Mac. There's just one problem. Like the girl in the nursery rhyme, when Siri's good, she's very, very good, but when she's bad, she's horrid.
I have a love-hate relationship with Siri. I use it dozens of times a day to take notes, make appointments, and send text messages. But I use Siri dozens of times a day only because I have to ask it three or four times to do any one task, mostly because of the dreaded, "Sorry, I can't help you now" response.
Some of the problems are understandable because of the inherent difficulty in natural language processing. I'll say something like, "Note, I need to email Rob a status update later," and I would expect that this request might be misinterpreted as one to email Rob right now. But some of Siri's problems are just downright bugs. My colleagues complain about dialing from a Bluetooth headset, only to discover that sometimes the call goes through but nobody can hear anything. Then there are the architecture problems with Siri that even Nuance, the technology provider, has acknowledged.
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Is satisfactory natural language processing even possible? Reader CJ Rhoads, a university professor and Ph.D. who worked in an artificial intelligence lab, maintains that Siri, "and any (all) other natural language processing programs, are destined to fail." Also a business consultant, she cites a scenario in her book, The Entrepreneur's Guide To Managing Information Technology, in which a medical transcription system was costing more to have the typists correct the mistakes than to simply have the typists enter the notes in the first place.
Let's say that Rhoads is right and that accurate natural language processing is an intractable problem. I actually don't care. As long as the user experience is good, I am fine with Siri making mistakes. It's still extremely valuable to me. If I were to say, "Note, send email to brothers and sisters, I will be in town from the 24th through the 27th to keep an eye on things with Mom's surgery," I don't really care if Siri gets "keep an eye on things" wrong and puts down "keep ion thing." I do care when Siri lets me waste my time talking and then says--because of the unavailability of the cloud or other bad architecture decisions--"I can't help you right now." That's a bad user experience.
My buddy made fun of me after I tried three times to take a note while we were running. "You could have stopped and written it down by now," he said. Exactly. Siri, if you can't help me right now, could you, at the very least, keep a queue to try later when the network is available?
During an interview last week with Apple CEO Tim Cook, Wall Street Journal tech guru Walt Mossberg poked Cook about Siri. "When it works, it works really well. It's kind of like magic," Mossberg told Cook. "But a lot of times it really doesn't work. ... What's going on with that? Is that up to your standards?"
Cook avoided answering the question directly, responding, "Customers love it." Well, he hasn't been talking to the customers I've been talking to. Cook went on to attribute the success of the iPhone 4S to Siri. That might be true, but I would argue that it has been the promise of Siri that has captured customers, not the actual implementation.
Cook focused on new Siri features. "There's more that it can do," he said. "We have a lot of people working on this, and I think you'll be really pleased with some of the things you'll see over the coming months with this. ... We've got some cool ideas about what Siri will do. ... We see unbelievable potential here."
But that's not the point. Siri has problems, and the first step is for Cook and Apple to admit that they exist. I would be a fan of the new Siri features to be unveiled at Apple's WWDC, and a lot of other people would be too, only if Apple also makes Siri even a little bit less of a horrible user experience.
Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at @_jfeldman.
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