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    iOS 18 Siri: Three clues about what it may be able to do

    People have been complaining about Siri for years now, arguing that it’s fallen behind the likes of Alexa and Google Assistant. With clear evidence that 2024 is going to see dramatic improvements in Apple’s AI features, will iOS 18 Siri finally turn things around?

    I’m very much hoping the answer is yes, and think there are three clues which provide some reason for optimism …

    Apple’s long wait to improve Siri

    Apple hasn’t rushed into generative AI, for three reasons.

    First, the company has a well-established approach to new tech. It prefers to let other companies suffer the bleeding-edge issues, and only enter the market when the company feels it can deliver an experience which beats the competition.

    Second, Apple has a strong focus on privacy, aiming to do as much processing as possible on the device, rather than sending personal data to a server to be processed. We’ve already seen the company take one small step toward this goal, with offline Siri launching in the latest Apple Watch models back in September.

    Third, Apple is a conservative-with-a-small-c company, choosing to steer clear of controversy where it can. Generative AI has wowed people with the apparent intelligence of its responses, but also done some spectacularly dumb things – from offering a Nazi salute phrase as a suggested response to seemingly attempting fraud.

    I’ve also argued that a spoken interface raises the stakes.

    But this is the year

    Much as I think Apple has been waiting for good reasons, things have now reached the point where it’s simply not feasible to wait any longer, and there’s now plenty of evidence that 2024 is the year Apple climbs on board the generative AI train.

    Bloomberg has reported Apple referring to iOS 18 as one of the biggest iOS updates it has ever made, and that AI is the focus of this.

    The Financial Times got a little more specific, indicating that Siri would this year be powered by a ChatGPT-style generative AI model.

    9to5Mac found evidence in an iOS 17.4 beta that Apple is working on a new version of Siri powered by generative AI technology.

    Even CEO Tim Cook, who is normally tight-lipped when it comes to Apple’s future plans, said that the company is “excited to share the details of our ongoing work in this space [AI] later this year.”

    So what might we expect?

    Clue 1: The original goal of the Siri team

    One of the biggest weaknesses with Siri is that it hasn’t been able to meaningfully interface with other apps. It can control smart home devices, of course, and there are Siri Shortcuts, but in general, if the thing you want to do requires a third-party app, Siri can’t help. Hence the infamous “Here’s what I found on the web” response.

    But this is precisely what’s needed to turn Siri into a truly useful and intelligent assistant. To have it actually start to perform some of the tasks currently carried out by human PAs.

    In fact, this is what the original team behind Siri wanted to achieve. Prior to Apple’s acquisition, the third-party version of the app actually had integrations with 42 different services. It was Apple who stripped out this capability, likely to have Siri be able to do fewer things more reliably.

    So Apple went its way, with a greatly reduced Siri capability, and the original team created a new intelligent assistant – Viv – giving it deep integration with third-party apps in order to carry out complex tasks.

    Here’s an example of what Viv was able to do all the way back in 2016:

    “Get me a pizza from Pizz’a Chicago near my office,” one of the engineers said into his smartphone. It was their first real test of Viv, the artificial-intelligence technology that the team had been quietly building for more than year. Everyone was a little nervous. Then, a text from Viv piped up: “Would you like toppings with that?”

    The engineers, eight in all, started jumping in: “Pepperoni.” “Half cheese.” “Caesar salad.” Emboldened by the result, they peppered Viv with more commands: Add more toppings. Remove toppings. Change medium size to large.

    About 40 minutes later — and after a few hiccups when Viv confused the office address — a Pizza Chicago driver showed up with four made-to-order pizzas.

    Clue 2: Generative AI’s ability to divine intent

    Since then, of course, we got generative AI.

    While most people have been impressed by the output – which, in its better examples, reads more like something written by a person than by a machine – for me the most impressive thing is how tech like ChatGPT handles the input. What it’s really good at is divining our intent.

    If Siri can figure out what it is we are trying to achieve, and it can interface with third-party apps and services like Uber, Booking.com, airlines, and so on, then we open up the possibility of it using multiple apps to carry out complex tasks.

    Clue 3: Apple’s own research into interacting with apps

    We got the final clue earlier this week.

    An Apple research paper describes how the company has been developing Ferret-UI, a generative AI system specifically designed to be able to make sense of app screens. The paper is somewhat vague about the potential applications of this – likely deliberately so – but the most exciting possibility would be to power a much more advanced Siri […]

    A user could give Siri an instruction like “Check flights from JFK to Boston tomorrow, and book a seat on a flight that will get me there by 10am with a total fare below $200.” Siri would then interact with the airline app to carry out the task.

    What might this mean for iOS 18 Siri?

    If we put all this together, we end up with an all-new Siri which uses generative AI capabilities to make sense of our requests; interfaces with popular existing services; and can interact with other apps on our iPhone.

    That should then enable Siri to respond to things like this:

    “I’m attending WWDC 2024 – suggest some flights and hotels.”

    Generative AI does the necessary parsing. It knows it has to look up WWDC to see where it is held, and for which dates. It uses our known home location to see from where we need to travel.

    It uses the apps I have on my iPhone to determine which airlines I use, and which hotels groups I favor. For popular ones, it then uses Apple-created Siri integrations with those services.

    Where Apple hasn’t created a Siri integration, then it interacts with other apps as required to carry out our intent.

    I’m not suggesting we can go quite as far as just trusting Siri to book everything! I think it will need to run its suggestions past us to let us choose. But once we have, then it ought to possible to say “Go ahead and book the Mosser, and the American flights departing at 3pm on the 9th and returning at 11am on the 15th.”

    Pipe dream, or realistic expectation?

    It’s been almost a decade since I wrote a feature request calling for Siri to be able to interface with third-party apps. It hasn’t really happened yet; could it finally be happening now?

    It’s an ambitious goal for sure. But the original Siri team have already demonstrated just how much was possible even before generative AI. With the breakthroughs that have been made since then, I’d like to believe what I’ve outlined above is feasible.

    What’s your view? Do you think this is a reasonable expectation for an all-new version of Siri powered by generative AI in iOS 18? Please take our poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.

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