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Mossberg: Why does Siri seem so dumb?

And if doesn’t get smarter soon, what does it mean for Apple?


Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Recode by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Recode.

I’ve been familiar with Siri longer than most people. Way back in 2009 — two years before Apple incorporated the intelligent digital assistant into the iPhone — I stood onstage with the inventors of the service while they debuted it at a tech conference I co-produced. At the time, it was just a third-party app on the iPhone App Store. Not long thereafter, Apple bought the company, and the assistant reemerged in 2011 with a splashy introduction as a core feature of the iPhone 4s.

In addition to the iPhone, Siri is now on the iPad and was recently added to the Mac. It’s also on Apple TV. Via the phone, it’s the key user interface in Apple’s CarPlay infotainment system for autos, and even the soon-to-be-released wireless AirPod earbuds.

Siri is also the point of the spear for Apple in the coming tech war — it’s just getting started, to make artificial intelligence a natural, conversational, part of your world at home, on your phone, in your car, everywhere. And Apple had a big head start with Siri.

So why does Siri seem so dumb? Why are its talents so limited? Why does it stumble so often? When was the last time Siri delighted you with a satisfying and surprising answer or action?

For me, at least, and for many people I know, it’s been years. Siri’s huge promise has been shrunk to just making voice calls and sending messages to contacts, and maybe getting the weather, using voice commands. Some users find it a reliable way to set timers, alarms, notes and reminders, or to find restaurants. But many of these tasks could be done with the crude, pre-Siri voice-command features on the iPhone and other phones, albeit in a more clumsy way.

A blown advantage

It seems to me that Apple has wasted its lead with Siri. And now Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and others are on the march. Apple has made excited announcements each time it added knowledge domains like sports and movies and restaurants to Siri on the iPhone. But it seems like it hasn’t added any major new topic domains in quite a while.

The only new domain listed on Apple’s Siri web page is for controlling home devices compatible with Apple’s HomeKit platform, a use case that’s quite small. You can now use Siri to “turn the lights blue” or “turn on the bathroom heater” — integrations that Amazon’s Echo and Alexa assistant have led the way on. And the always-listening Echo is faster than pressing the iPhone’s home button to call up Siri, and more reliable than the “Hey Siri” command, which can be hit-or-miss.

When’s the presidential debate? Siri had no clue.

If you try and treat Siri like a truly intelligent assistant, aware of the wider world, it often fails, even though Apple presentations and its Siri website suggest otherwise. (And I’m not talking about getting your voice wrong. In my recent experience, Siri has become quite good at transcribing what I’m asking, just not at answering it.)

In recent weeks, on multiple Apple devices, Siri has been unable to tell me the names of the major-party candidates for president and vice president of the United States. Or when they were debating. Or when the Emmy awards show was due to be on. Or the date of the World Series.

When I asked, “What is the weather on Crete?” Siri gave me the weather for Crete, Illinois, a small village which — while I’m sure it’s great — isn’t what most people mean when they ask for the weather on Crete, the famous Greek island.

Google Now, on the same Apple devices, using the same voice input, answered every one of these questions clearly and correctly. And that isn’t even Google’s latest digital helper, the new Google Assistant.

If you try most of these broken examples right now, they’ll work properly, because Apple fixed them after I tweeted screenshots of most of them in exasperation, and asked the company about them.

Apple stressed to me that it’s constantly improving Siri, and also stressed that it focuses its Siri efforts on the kinds of tasks that it says millions of people ask every day: Placing phone calls, sending texts and finding places. It puts much less emphasis on what it calls “long tail” questions, like the ones I’ve cited above, which in some cases, Apple says, number in only the hundreds each day.

But I suspect that people don’t ask those questions because, after trying a time or two and getting no answers or wrong answers, they just give up on Siri. And I can’t see how asking when the 2016 presidential debates are being held is a more “long tail” query than asking when Abraham Lincoln was born. That’s a question Siri not only can answer, but which Apple touts on its website.

Everyday stumbles

Apple also says Siri is focused on enabling you “to work with your device in a hands-free way.” But in my recent tests, it even fails for me, or is inconsistent, too often, when relying on data that’s right on the device or in iCloud.

For instance, when I asked Siri on my Mac how long it would take me to get to work, it said it didn’t have my work address — even though the “me” contact card contains a work address and the same synced contact card on my iPhone allowed Siri to give me an answer.

Similarly, on my iPad, when I asked what my next appointment was, it said “Sorry, Walt, something’s wrong” — repeatedly, with slightly different wording, in multiple places on multiple days. But, using the same Apple calendar and data, Siri answered correctly on the iPhone.

When I asked it for pictures I had taken in York, England, this summer, it mixed them up with pictures I took years ago in Yorktown, Virginia. And yes, it had transcribed the question itself perfectly.

It couldn’t find recent iMessages from my daughter-in-law, saying I had none, on the very day she had sent two. And if you have duplicate information for frequent contacts, Siri isn’t smart enough to know which one you use most often, or used last time, to call or text.

Who is Tim Cook?

It also can’t distinguish between the question of “who is” a person and a request for that person’s contact card. For instance, I have a contact card for Apple CEO Tim Cook. When I ask, “Who is Tim Cook?” Siri shows me the contact card, not his bio. But, on a Samsung Galaxy S7 (Samsung’s non-exploding model) which also has a contact card for Cook, Google Now understands the question perfectly and gives me his Wikipedia entry. If I ask Google Now on the Galaxy to “email Tim Cook,” it does that, too — just like Siri.

Some consolation

Siri isn’t the only element of Apple’s artificial intelligence strategy. Its latest operating systems and core apps do some smart things, like guessing an unknown caller’s name from information in an email. Or automatically marking on a map where you parked your car. Or notifying you via your Apple watch how long your commute is when your phone connects to the Bluetooth in your car at a certain time of day.

Bottom line

Yes, Siri can usually place a call or send a text. It can tell you sports standings, Yelp restaurant reviews and movie times — features Apple added years ago. And it must be said that all of its competitors have their own limitations and also make mistakes.

But in its current incarnation, Siri is too limited and unreliable to be an effective weapon for Apple in the coming AI wars. It seems stagnant. Apple didn’t become great by just following the data on what customers are doing today. It became great by delighting customers with feats they didn’t expect. The AI revolution will demand that.

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