Happy birthday to Siri, the first and most frustrating voice assistant

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in iOS
It's ten years since Apple introduced Siri as a beta service, which means a decade of talking to our iPhone, then Apple Watch, and HomePod.

How Siri looked at launch on the iPhone 4S
How Siri looked at launch on the iPhone 4S


The more you know about voice recognition, or even just the more you think about it, the more incredible Siri is today -- and astounding it was on its announcement, ten years ago. On October 4, 2011, Phil Schiller called it "the coolest feature of the new iPhone 4S."

Unfortunately, Schiller also inadvertently described the future of Siri even as he believed he was commenting on previous attempts to do voice recognition.

"Because for decades, technologists have teased us with this dream that you're gonna be able to talk to technology and they'll do things for us," he said. "Haven't we seen this before? Over and over, but it never comes true."

"We have very limited capability," he continued. "Just learn a syntax, call a name, dial a number, play a song. It is such a letdown."

Mind you, he wasn't the only one to say something at the Siri launch that sounds a little different in retrospect. "When I leave Apple it'll put up an alert," said Scott Forstall in the demo, "reminding me to call my wife."

Siri really is amazing

Today we're used to Siri and Alexa, and we may remember such digital voice assistants as Cortana, but we know them so well that we can forget how remarkable they all are. When you ask Siri something, it sends that audio across the world to a server where it is parsed, or just plain ripped apart, to determine what words -- and what language -- you said.

Then that's compared to what you said a moment ago, because you may be continuing a kind of conversation. And then the instruction is sent back to your phone so that Siri can both do whatever you've asked, and tell you the result.




This has changed only very recently, with Apple introducing on-device Siri which can sometimes skip that business of sending across the world.

Nonetheless, this is a series of steps that are difficult to do, and difficult to do quickly, but Siri does it in excess of 25 billion times a year.

It's easy to forget how much it is doing, in every sense, and it's also hard to remember that it's doing all of this because it goes wrong so often. Sometimes that's because a kind of auto-correct type of failure has hit the translation and it thinks you've asked something you haven't.

But it can also be that Siri fails to do what it says it's done, or rather what you think it says it's done. Ask Siri on your Apple Watch to set an alarm for 6pm and it will commonly complain saying that there isn't an alarm for 6pm.

When you've finished explaining in words with multiple asterisks that this is why you were asking it to set one, it might do it. Siri might actually set a 6pm alarm and tell you it has.

But it won't necessarily have then turned that 6pm alarm on.

In the quite incredible work that Siri does, that feels like the kind of low-hanging fruit that should be easy to fix. It's not about parsing difficult sentences, it's not about picking a result out of a best-guess voice-analysis, it's not doing the thing it says it's doing.

Calm down, take a deep breath

This is Siri's tenth birthday and we wouldn't have it disappear, we don't fail to appreciate what a marvel it is. When you can just call out to thin air, "Hey, Siri, remind me to pay my credit card when I get home," it is a truly amazing thing.

It just does lose some of that amazement when right after your Apple Watch says "Done," so does your iPhone. And your HomePod.

It's less than amazing when you're in the kitchen and ask your iPhone to set a timer, and it's your HomePod mini with bionic ears in the den that does it, right before someone shuts the door to that room.

That aspect is extra frustrating because really it should be an example of Apple's absolute brilliance in sweating the details. When you call out "Hey, Siri," every single device you own that is capable of hearing you, listens.

They all then rapid-fire talk with each other to calculate which device you meant. If you've raised your Watch arm, while your iPhone is in your pocket and the HomePod is in the den, it's your Watch that knows to respond.

But then it doesn't.

There must surely, easily, be situations where it's not possible to correctly predict which device you wanted. But there certainly cannot be any intra-device communication that results in two devices thinking you meant them.

Yet that happens. The Watch on your wrist, the iPhone in your back pocket. The iPhone in your hand, and the HomePod on your desk, two devices can both react, both act, on what you say.

And then sometimes, just sometimes, nothing responds. That is equally frustrating -- but it is also when you realise just how much you actually rely on Siri.

From iOS 5 onwards, more of Siri will work on-device instead of needing an internet connection
From iOS 5 onwards, more of Siri will work on-device instead of needing an internet connection

We don't come to bury Siri

You're deep in the middle of a task and you remember you need to put the oven on to pre-heat for tonight's dinner. No one ever remembers that at the moment they need to do it, but now you can just call aloud and Siri will remember it for you, Siri will tell you when it's time.

Or you've got your arms full when you walk up to your front door. "Hey, Siri, unlock the front door," and if you've got a Smart Lock, it does. "Turn off the downstairs lights." Done.

What time is it in New York? Easy. "Hey, Siri, what's 29 times 3?"

Or you're listening to music through AirPods and you can say, "Hey, Siri, play Francisca Valenzuela." With the gentlest of dips in the music volume, Siri listens, and then plays what you want.

Apple devices are better with Siri.

Siri has the weather down cold, you can ask it about that any time. You can also tell it to take you home -- and it will open Apple Maps with the route to your house right there.

And Apple has got the tone right with Siri. It doesn't pretend to shout at you like the Carrot Weather app, but it also isn't robotic.

So sometimes Siri will tell you about Apple launches a little early. Ask Siri its favorite color and it might dodge the question, but ask you yours.

Or if - when - you have occasion to use colorful language with Siri, it may reply "I'm not responding to that."

It's not "following along the conversation just like a human does," as Forstall said later in his demo. But it's more than straight answer-and-respond.

Somehow it is enough of a personality that if you ever hear someone using Siri with one of its alternative voices, it sounds wrong to you.

So if Siri is this brilliant thing that is chiefly so brilliant that we can tell how much better it could be, it is still something remarkable. And ten years of it is worth celebrating.

"Hey, Siri, when's your birthday?"

"Surprise!" says Siri, if you ask on October 4, 2021. "I'm ten today. I tried to organize my own surprise birthday party, but I knew it was coming, so I thought I'd surprise you instead."

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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 44
    mike1mike1 Posts: 3,023member
    Personally, I find it completely unnecessary for my Watch, iPad or phone to respond to Hey Siri. The only devices that listen for "Hey Siri" are my HomePods. My watch is on my wrist and my phone can easily be in my hand and it tales no effort to hold down a button. I guess, if my hands were full a lot when I needed Siri to do something, I'd enable it on my wrist.

    BTW - Siri will not unlock my front door. I was told that was because someone yelling through a window or door could trigger Siri to unlock the door. She will, however, lock my door.
    elijahgtokyojimuwatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 44
    elijahgelijahg Posts: 2,634member
    Let's not beat around the bush here. Siri might have been brilliant 10 years ago, but 10 years is a very long time in tech: today, Siri is far from amazing. It's not materially improved since introduction, once a year Apple adds a couple of new phrases but comprehension remains that of a 2 year old. Alexa, which launched 18 months after Siri, has "intelligence" that is 10x that of Siri, thousands of devices that support it plus "skills" for everything. Siri on the other hand has a very fixed feature set, aside from some restricted actions you can use with shortcuts - it is way too basic compared to the competition.

    As well as that, its comprehension is terrible. A typical example I use is asking Siri to add 5 minutes to a timer. Siri changes the timer to 5 minutes. Similar lack of comprehension with lists too. With Alexa, - as long as the skill is installed - I can specify the exact item I want from the grocery store, I can ask the price, and I can add it to the basket. Next time I go on the grocery store's site, it'll be waiting in the basket. Siri can't even get adding things to a list right. "Add tomato sauce to my shopping list" regularly results in two items, "tomato" and "sauce". These kinds of bugs have existed since at least 2016, and yet apparently "Siri really is amazing"? Don't think so.

    Aside from Siri itself, I don't think I've ever heard anyone other than me ever say "hey Siri" unless it's at my direction. Certainly never heard or seen anyone use Siri in public, ever. In fact most people I know have it switched off. Also, Siri's crappiness is a key reason the HomePod flopped.
    edited October 2021 tokyojimupatchythepiratelibertyandfreeflyingdp
  • Reply 3 of 44
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 12,205member
    Am I disappointed that a decade later Siri is still pretty dumb? Sure. But do I believe it’s a unique shortcoming of Apple and their developers? Nah. AI has long been a TV & film fantasy, and the real thing is much less impressive. That nobody has cracked it or has K.I.T.T. in their smartphone just proves the point. The problem space is difficult and we have a long, long way to go before we get to the computer on Enterprise. In our pockets.
    edited October 2021 williamlondonflyingdpwatto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 4 of 44
    elijahgelijahg Posts: 2,634member
    Regarding the regular "Hey Siri" confusion, it'd be much more sense if you could name devices. So "Hey iPhone", or "hey watch". Alternatively, for many things, it wouldn't matter which devices actually listened. Sending a text? Probably best for the device with a screen, but what's wrong with a HomePod being the microphone, and the text showing on the iPhone or Watch for the person speaking? All devices could listen, use a convolution algorithm to improve the signal to noise ratio of the audio and then present the result on your iPhone. For audio requests, without airpods it's very likely you'd want a Homepod to respond, so if the iPhone picks up the "hey siri", route the result to the HP automatically. There's so much Apple could do with Siri, but just doesn't.
    edited October 2021
  • Reply 5 of 44
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 12,205member
    elijahg said:
    As well as that, its comprehension is terrible. A typical example I use is asking Siri to add 5 minutes to a timer. Siri changes the timer to 5 minutes. Similar lack of comprehension with lists too. With Alexa, - as long as the skill is installed - I can specify the exact item I want from the grocery store, I can ask the price, and I can add it to the basket. Next time I go on the grocery store's site, it'll be waiting in the basket. Siri can't even get adding things to a list right. "Add tomato sauce to my shopping list" regularly results in two items, "tomato" and "sauce". These kinds of bugs have existed since at least 2016, and yet apparently "Siri really is amazing"? Don't think so.

    Aside from Siri itself, I don't think I've ever heard anyone other than me ever say "hey Siri" unless it's at my direction. Certainly never heard or seen anyone use Siri in public, ever. In fact most people I know have it switched off. Also, Siri's crappiness is a key reason the HomePod flopped.
    HomePod didn’t flop. The original scored better in sound than comparable and slightly pricier options, earned more of the high end market revenue and market share, and was sold for three years. The product line was expanded and the cheaper ones sold more. A flop is something that fails on impact, like:

    Andy Rubin’s Essential phone
    Amazon’s 4-camera 3D smartphone 
    Facebook’s smartphone
    etc..

    You apparently misunderstand what HomePod did and does. It’s not a smart speaker; it’s a speaker that uses a voice interface. When it comes to its job to be done, playing music, there is no problem (even tho I almost always use the iPhone or iPad UI rather than voice).

    Also:


    jcs2305williamlondonwatto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 6 of 44
    DAalsethDAalseth Posts: 2,211member
    I don’t use “Hey Siri”. I use the button on my AW or iPhone to call it up. That saves a lot of confusion. 
    My SO OTOH will often ask “Siri, What time do the Twins play today?” And get two, sometimes three devices all answering at once. Siri will also drop a non sequetor into the middle of a conversation. We didn’t say Hey Siri, but it thought we did and it tries to reply.

    I find what Siri does, it does well. It will set a timer for me without fail. It will call up a game time with no problem. On the other hand I have never had any luck with requests that involve if/then logic. “Remind me to do X when I get home” has never elicited any response worth mention. So I just don’t do that. 
    Fidonet127
  • Reply 7 of 44
    sdw2001sdw2001 Posts: 17,895member
    Siri, to me, is generally a frustrating experience.  I often do tasks by typing instead...it's just easier. 

    1.  Dictation accuracy is terrible (that's not really Siri).  
    2.  If you pause when trying to do a task like set a reminder, forget it.  Better know what you're going to say exactly.  
    3.  Using it over any 3rd party bluetooth device (including in the car) takes time off my life expectancy.  
    4.  "Hey Siri......"   (waiting for acknowledgement)...."open my....."  [interrupts "Mmmhmmm?].   
    5.  It still can't read me my email.  

    It's still useful for some things.  I will set reminders with it, but depending on what I'm asking, it's often easier to type.  
    patchythepirateelijahg
  • Reply 8 of 44
    DAalsethDAalseth Posts: 2,211member
    sdw2001 said:
    Siri, to me, is generally a frustrating experience.  I often do tasks by typing instead...it's just easier. 

    1.  Dictation accuracy is terrible (that's not really Siri).  
    2.  If you pause when trying to do a task like set a reminder, forget it.  Better know what you're going to say exactly.  
    3.  Using it over any 3rd party bluetooth device (including in the car) takes time off my life expectancy.  
    4.  "Hey Siri......"   (waiting for acknowledgement)...."open my....."  [interrupts "Mmmhmmm?].   
    5.  It still can't read me my email.  

    It's still useful for some things.  I will set reminders with it, but depending on what I'm asking, it's often easier to type.  
    1) I find Siri is quite good with dictation. I’ve done extensive notes, even story outlines, and it’s written what I’ve said with very high accuracy. A few years ago I had to make a list of texts I was donating, The Devonian Extinction Event, Lunar Geology, A post Apollo View, Tetrapod Evolution in the Palaeozoic, that sort of thing. I was shocked how accurate it was, even with highly technical terms.
    2) Yes I’ve founbd the same thing. Say it all at once, or Siri just falls apart.
    3) Haven’t tried that.
    4) That’s why I don’t use “Hey Siri”. Once I switched to a button push to call it up, I’ve had much better luck with it.
    5) Another thing I haven’t tried.
    edited October 2021
  • Reply 9 of 44
    Hey Siri, I need directions
    Directions to Where?
    Home
    You'll need to unlock your iPhone first.

    Maddening, since my phone is also smart enough to know I am DRIVING.  Seems counter to all the things we are told about using our phones while driving, since I need to lift my phone out of its holder and take my attention OFF THE ROAD to unlock my phone.
    dewme
  • Reply 10 of 44
    mike1 said:
    Personally, I find it completely unnecessary for my Watch, iPad or phone to respond to Hey Siri. The only devices that listen for "Hey Siri" are my HomePods. My watch is on my wrist and my phone can easily be in my hand and it tales no effort to hold down a button. I guess, if my hands were full a lot when I needed Siri to do something, I'd enable it on my wrist.

    BTW - Siri will not unlock my front door. I was told that was because someone yelling through a window or door could trigger Siri to unlock the door. She will, however, lock my door.
    I unlock my door using Siri all the time but it has to be authenticated. It works from my watch immediately (as long as it’s on my wrist and unlocked) and after I authentic with Face ID on my iPhone. It will not unlock using HomePod but it will lock. I can’t remember it if will unlock with TV. 
  • Reply 11 of 44
    elijahgelijahg Posts: 2,634member
    elijahg said:
    As well as that, its comprehension is terrible. A typical example I use is asking Siri to add 5 minutes to a timer. Siri changes the timer to 5 minutes. Similar lack of comprehension with lists too. With Alexa, - as long as the skill is installed - I can specify the exact item I want from the grocery store, I can ask the price, and I can add it to the basket. Next time I go on the grocery store's site, it'll be waiting in the basket. Siri can't even get adding things to a list right. "Add tomato sauce to my shopping list" regularly results in two items, "tomato" and "sauce". These kinds of bugs have existed since at least 2016, and yet apparently "Siri really is amazing"? Don't think so.

    Aside from Siri itself, I don't think I've ever heard anyone other than me ever say "hey Siri" unless it's at my direction. Certainly never heard or seen anyone use Siri in public, ever. In fact most people I know have it switched off. Also, Siri's crappiness is a key reason the HomePod flopped.
    HomePod didn’t flop. The original scored better in sound than comparable and slightly pricier options, earned more of the high end market revenue and market share, and was sold for three years. The product line was expanded and the cheaper ones sold more. A flop is something that fails on impact, like:

    Andy Rubin’s Essential phone
    Amazon’s 4-camera 3D smartphone 
    Facebook’s smartphone
    etc..

    You apparently misunderstand what HomePod did and does. It’s not a smart speaker; it’s a speaker that uses a voice interface. When it comes to its job to be done, playing music, there is no problem (even tho I almost always use the iPhone or iPad UI rather than voice).

    Also:


    Really, so Cook with his excellent supply chain management actually intended to store up HomePods made in 2017/2018 until their sale in 2021? HomePod was a flop. Though let’s be honest, if Apple sold 3 HomePods you’d still say it was a roaring success, because you will never criticise anything Apple does. 

    Seems then Apple also misunderstood what a smart speaker is, since Apple themselves called HP a smart speaker. Oh dear. https://www.apple.com/uk/newsroom/2020/10/apple-introduces-homepod-mini-a-powerful-smart-speaker-with-amazing-sound/ You’re definitely right though, it’s absolutely not a smart speaker. Well would you look at that, you’ve inadvertently criticised Apple. What will you do?!

    Great! You got one of the times Siri worked. Siri needs to work 95% of the time otherwise it’s not worth even trying. 
    edited October 2021 muthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 12 of 44
    Siri says more about the astonishing lack of vision in Apple's management than any other product. Siri could have been the answer to problem of how to access the vast number of options and features in the operating system and apps without wading through many levels of menus and screens. Siri could have been a way to easily converse with your devices to get your work done. It could have run from your home hub while you are at home to keep everything you say private. It could have been the solution Apple was looking for to make everything fully accessible to the deaf and anyone else who could not look at or touch a screen such as people who are driving. Siri could have been the center of your home control making it easy to adjust the thermostat, brew your morning coffee or turn off the lights.

    Siri is none of those things because of Apple management's total lack of imagination and need for absolute control over everything. This is why Siri's voice recognition has to phone back to Apple's own servers exposing everything you say potential security threats. This is why there is no open standard for home control that Apple's products can use. It is why you can't access vital hardware and software features of your iPhone with a simple voice command. The creative, surprising, amazing Apple vision died with Steve Jobs. What's left is a greedy husk of a company that is only interested in short term profit.


    elijahgflyingdp
  • Reply 13 of 44
    DAalsethDAalseth Posts: 2,211member
    One of the most annoying limitations of Siri for me though it it does not integrate with the Notes App. I can set a Reminder, but I don’t use Reminders. I’d love to be able to tap my AW and say Make a QuickNote, Eggs, Cheese, Spark Plugs, and have it create it. 
    elijahg
  • Reply 14 of 44
    DAalseth said:
    One of the most annoying limitations of Siri for me though it it does not integrate with the Notes App. I can set a Reminder, but I don’t use Reminders. I’d love to be able to tap my AW and say Make a QuickNote, Eggs, Cheese, Spark Plugs, and have it create it. 
    Sorry if I'm being silly (I've only played a bit with this), but what about using Shortcuts? There are 6 commands related to Notes in that app. Requires some upfront work, but these should all be available via Siri and you can string them together to work for you specifically.
  • Reply 15 of 44
    silly me. I was hoping that for Siri‘s 10th birthday Apple would give her awesome functionality and new features and fix the old ones that were broken. I used to be able to say “add” to my text message whenever I  thought of some thing else that I had meant to say. It won’t take that anymore. Or “change.”  Well, at least they didn’t boast about giving her another, better new voice. If they had I think I would’ve thrown my iPad up against the wall. 
    elijahgwilliamlondon
  • Reply 16 of 44
    I learned to 'master' Siri a few years ago.  Though it still takes about 15 minutes to go through 'Settings' and turn Siri OFF from all the apps.
    Unfortunately, it has to be done after some iOS updates that turn it back on.
    edited October 2021
  • Reply 17 of 44
    DAalsethDAalseth Posts: 2,211member
    DAalseth said:
    One of the most annoying limitations of Siri for me though it it does not integrate with the Notes App. I can set a Reminder, but I don’t use Reminders. I’d love to be able to tap my AW and say Make a QuickNote, Eggs, Cheese, Spark Plugs, and have it create it. 
    Sorry if I'm being silly (I've only played a bit with this), but what about using Shortcuts? There are 6 commands related to Notes in that app. Requires some upfront work, but these should all be available via Siri and you can string them together to work for you specifically.
    I hadn’t thought about setting a shortcut. Hmmm…
    williamlondon
  • Reply 18 of 44
    I am pleased other folks have problems with Siri. I find I say ‘Hey, Siri’ and end up
    with all my five devices answering, unless I put all but one well away. My HomePod via Siri often can’t find music in my library, even though it is either bought from iTunes or streamed from Apple Music. I also get Siri talking to me when I haven’t called him up. Basically, Siri is a complete waste of time, it’s quicker not to bother.
    baconstangwilliamlondonelijahg
  • Reply 19 of 44
    doaldoal Posts: 21member
    In think it’s ridiculous to have to say “ hey” before Siri. Also, how is it possible that predictive text and dictation have become worse with iOS 14? Dictation during text messages is so bad that’s it’s borderline unusable. Sometimes even if I make a concerted effort to speak as if talking to someone with a hearing impairment: loudly and clearly. 
    williamlondon
  • Reply 20 of 44
    dewmedewme Posts: 4,391member
    Neither of the two voice assistants that I use, Siri and Alexa, is perfect. Fortunately, I've normalized my expectations somewhat over years of using these voice control aids.

    Siri on the HomePod seems to work quite well for controlling music playback and its far field voice recognition is astounding. Even with my iPhone being less than 18" from my head I have to literally whisper to Siri on my iPhone to respond instead of my HomePod which is in an adjacent room, around a corner, more than 20 feet away, and at a volume I can barely detect, responding instead. Siri in Apple Car Play has improved substantially in terms of the helpfulness of its driving directions, but it still is painfully slow to respond. The glowing orb of Siri "thinking" is a very common sight.

    I do have an Echo Studio and an Echo Auto, so I am able to compare Siri to Alexa on comparable devices in similar environments. There are times when Alexa can be incredibly frustrating, like repeatedly providing the same incorrect answer to a question no matter how many ways I try to restate the question to remove potential ambiguity. It gets fixated on the answer and refuses to budge. For example, I queried Alexa and a statistic within the scope of the entire US, at the national level, and it kept giving me the statistic for the county that I live in even though I never said anything about "county" or "region" or anything more narrowly scoped than the entire country. Of course Alexa knows what county I live in without me even telling it - because Amazon Knows All.

    On the other hand, whenever I whisper "Alexa, cancel my alarm" when I get up prior to my alarm going off and Alexa whispers back "Alarm cancelled," it seems somewhat magical, or magical compared to Siri who would blast back a response at the current (non whisper) volume which would solicit scorn from my previously sleeping but now rudely awakened wife.
    edited October 2021 muthuk_vanalingam
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