Apple Hopes a Friendlier Siri Will Make You Use It More


Expect Siri to be a little less formal and little more chatty, as Apple continues to tweak its personal assistant as a broader effort to step up its artificial intelligence efforts.

That's one of the many takeaways from an extensive look at Apple's work with AI and machine learning by long-time Apple observer Steven Levy at his Backchannel blog on Medium. While Levy's primary focus is on how Apple incorporates machine learning into its products, there are a few Siri-centric tidbits that should interest iOS users in particular.

For starters, there's the warmer, friendlier Siri. In a demo, Levy gets to hear Siri's familiar, robotic voice contrasted with a more natural-sounding one. That's an example of the effort Apple is putting into machine learning, Siri's head of advanced development Tom Gruber tells Levy, and it could lead to people being more comfortable talking with that disembodied voice that lives in their iPhone (and with macOS Sierra, their Mac).

MORE: 10 Improvements Siri Needs Now

"People feel more trusting if the voice is a bit more high-quality," Gruber tells Levy in the Backchannel article. "The better voice actually pulls the user in and has them use it more. So it has an increasing-returns effect."

I'm not sure how much of Apple's efforts to make Siri sound a little bit more natural are out in the wild yet, but hints of a friendlier tone have crept into my conversations with the assistant. Using the iOS 10 public beta when I say "Hey Siri," the digital assistant will spring to life on my iPhone SE with a more casual-sounding "I'm listening" or "Yes?" Siri still lapses into a robotic tone, particularly when commas or proper names are involved, but you can get a sense of the improvements Apple is trying to make.

Whether it pays off is another question entirely. In that same Backchannel article, Apple claims that people are stumbling upon new Siri features from the same familiar requests that they make of the voice assistant. That hasn't been my experience, though. Perhaps because I've had past frustrations with Siri, I only use the feature for queries I know will result in success — asking Siri to set an alarm or start a timer, for example, or maybe composing a text message to my wife when I need to keep my hands off my iPhone's on-screen keyboard. Those kinds of uses don't really lend themselves to discovery.

Ask Siri what it can do, and the voice assistant helpfully brings up a list of possible queries. An entry under Restaurants suggesting that I could make dinner reservations caught my eye. I tried phrasing my query in different ways — "I want to make dinner reservations" or "I want to make reservations tonight" — and got everything from a list of web page results to Siri confessing that it didn't understand my request. I got my best results when I said I wanted to reserve a table for four in San Francisco: Siri brought up a list of tappable results with links to the Open Table app. A similar request for Oakland just brought up a list of restaurants that Siri offered to call. We can chalk some of that up to the vagaries of using an iOS beta, but Siri's still got some studying to do.

Still, I found some encouraging signs. I asked what inning the Oakland game was in and — after clarifying whether I meant the football team or baseball team in Oakland — Siri happily informed me that it was the seventh inning and the A's were winning for once. It's not a seamless experience, since you would think the word "inning" might be a tip off to what sport I meant, but it does suggest that Siri is getting smarter.

Siri figures to be a big part of iOS 10 when the finished version of the updated operating system arrives in September, probably just before Apple's latest iPhones hit retail shelves. Apple is opening up Siri to third-party developers — better late than never, I guess — and its intelligence can be seen in features like predictive typing suggestions that offer up locations and contact info based on the context of what you're typing. And, based on the Backchannel article, there are likely more Siri-related surprises to be found as you dive into the OS update.

"I think we need to be doing a better job communicating all the things we do," Eddy Cue, Apple's senior vice president for internet software and services, tells Levy. Hopefully, that starts in earnest with iOS 10.

Have you noticed any newfound Siri tricks when you've used your iPhone lately? Let us know in the comments below.