Jolting Siri Back to Life

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As John Gruber points out, there's not a lot new in this WSJ "exclusive" story – including the reporting on "Project Blackbird", the attempt to rebuild Siri from the ground up, which ultimately had its wings clipped and which Wayne Ma dug further into for The Information over a year ago – but a couple bits worth calling out:

Apple has weighed whether to allow users to choose a third-party AI provider that could supplant or help power Siri, one of the people said. It is unclear in what way Siri could be powered, augmented or replaced by third-party AI providers, or whether Apple will move forward with a version of that idea.

This, to me, is the biggest question in all of this. And one that seemingly no one, including this report, has the answer to yet. As I wrote last week:

The hooking up ChatGPT to Siri is obviously the big element here. While Apple seems to be working on other upgrades to their assistant, those may be a bit farther out. The question is: in order to improve Siri now, is Apple willing to do a brain transplant, as it were? Replace whatever Siri is now with GPT-4o or some variation? Or could that model be made to simply augment Siri?

That post linked to another report by The Information noting that Apple had at least been testing the notion of hooking up Siri directly to ChatGPT. Clearly, Apple is worried about the "hallucination" risk in using a third-party AI provider at all, but to pipe ChatGPT right into Siri would be a whole other level of risk. How would they denote, verbally, that the results are from ChatGPT, and not Apple? That seems like it would be such a poor user experience that it would be surprising for them to do something like that. So is it just some pop-up you see once or every-so-often after you opt-in to using ChatGPT (or any other third-party service)?

One thing that might be fun from a product perspective is to maintain the Siri voice (of which there are a number of them now, of course) for anything Apple serves up, and have another voice for anything from OpenAI. It's probably too subtle, and the whole Scarlett Johansson debacle has sort of cast a pall over these voices for now, but imagine Siri saying something like:

"Hmm, I'm not sure about that one. Do you want me to ask my friend, Sky?"

Though Apple may insist on using 'ChatGPT' instead of 'Sky' (and certainly not 'Sky' now, sadly) to make it very clear which entity is serving up the information to come. And that would also help OpenAI's brand halo with ChatGPT – or hurt it depending on the result!

We all know that Apple needs to fix Siri. And fast. And the fastest way to do that would seemingly be via ChatGPT. But do they have the courage to pull it off? And should they risk some brand cachet to do so? I say yes, but we'll see soon enough!

One more thing:

When Siri launched in 2011, Apple was ahead of rivals in seeking to establish the first AI assistant. Jobs, who spearheaded the acquisition in 2010 that led to Siri, encouraged the team to keep the assistant’s dry wit and sense of humor. The early launch demonstrated the company’s willingness to take risks.

People forget about this now, but a big part of early Siri was "her" personality. It's still there, but has been lost in the frustration of her subpar performance. If Apple wants to continue to do things that would have made Steve Jobs smile, something akin to what OpenAI showcased with GPT-4o – though perhaps less sultry – could be music to a lot of folks' ears.

Including, notably, original Siri co-founder Dag Kittlaus, who has a couple of good quotes in this piece, including:

“Siri was the last thing Apple was first on,” said Dag Kittlaus, co-founder of the Siri startup that Apple bought, who left Apple soon after the product’s launch.


With a new urgency on AI technology, Kittlaus, the Siri co-founder, said this year could be an important one for Siri as the company plans to incorporate thoughtful AI features into the iPhone. “Siri has been stuck in the mud for years,” he said. “But I absolutely see a renaissance coming.”

Update June 10, 2024: Some more thoughts on how Apple/OpenAI may handle all this...

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