Allowing Siri to connect with other apps could result in even more significant jumps in its ability if those apps have artificial intelligence of their own, says Winarsky. Siri’s intelligence is in the way it can work out the user’s intent from the words they say, despite the use of slang or ambiguous phrasing, says Winarsky. “Today it just matches that intent up with a Web service that can help, but there’s a lot of opportunity to use artificial intelligence for that next step of acting on your intent, too,” he says. At SRI, Winarsky and colleagues are building AIs to assist with specific tasks such as travel or entertainment by drawing on knowledge of things like vacation destinations and what kinds of leisure activities fit together. Those systems are also able to personalize suggestions based on a person’s past selections and preferences, says Winarsky.
One company interested in being able to combine its own AI with Siri’s is Cleversense, says Babak Pahlavan, cofounder of the startup, which earlier this year released a personal assistant app called Alfred for Android and iOS devices. Alfred draws on data harvested from the Web, including review sites such as Yelp, to recommend restaurants, cafes, and bars based on the time of day, your location, places you’ve checked into on Facebook, and your previous feedback on the app’s recommendations.
“We are the next piece after Siri in terms of using AI to help people,” says Pahlavan, who agrees with Winarsky’s explanation that Siri’s abilities really revolve around understanding natural phrases. “Our focus is on learning so that over time we eliminate the need for you to specify what you want, and you can make high level declarations like ‘I want lunch.’ ” Siri won’t respond to a statement that general. It needs more specifics, such as “an Italian restaurant near San Francisco.” Nor can it learn from your past actions or expressed preferences. If Siri were connected to Cleversense’s technology, though, perhaps it could.
In less than three months, Alfred has dished out seven million recommendations, says Pahlavan, and more than nine in 10 users choose to give Alfred such general requests, relying on its AI to make a recommendation based on their past feedback about what they like, rather than specifying a particular type of place. “It shows that we can make good, personal recommendations and that people like that kind of intelligence that curates the noisy world around you,” says Pahlavan. His company’s AI will make its technology available for others to draw on in their own apps or Web services. “The Siri guys started a conversation about how to commercialize AI,” says Pahlavan. He hopes Apple will take the opportunity to encourage an ecosystem of AI apps, just as it did with mobile apps.
At time of writing, Apple hadn’t responded to queries asking whether more services will be added to Siri, or if outside developers will be allowed to boost Siri’s brainpower.