Apple’s next big challenge: Making Siri smarter

Brandon Bailey
Associated Press

San Francisco — Apple’s Siri made a big splash when the wisecracking digital assistant debuted on the iPhone five years ago. But as other tech giants jockey to build intelligent “chat bots” and voice-controlled home systems capable of more challenging artificial-intelligence feats, Siri at times no longer seems cutting edge.

On Monday, Apple is expected to demonstrate an upgrade to Siri’s smarts as it kicks off its annual software conference. It’s a potentially momentous time for the company; sales of its flagship iPhone are slowing, and AI is emerging as a key tech battleground. Apple, Google, Facebook and others are racing to create digital services consumers will find indispensable for shopping, chatting, controlling other appliances and simply getting through their daily lives.

While Siri has gained new abilities over the years, some experts believe Apple still lags in the AI race, hindered in part by its unwillingness to pry too deeply into your personal information.

“Google Now has kind of eaten their lunch,” said Chris Monberg, co-founder of Boomtrain, a startup that makes artificial intelligence software used by online retailers.

In some respects, Siri remains plenty competitive, at least so long as you stick with Apple’s other services.

Still, some experts say Apple is at a disadvantage with Google, which has compiled vast quantities of data — about individual users and consumer trends — from its search engine, Gmail, maps and other popular online services.

With AI, “systems get much better the more they know about the user,” said Alan Black, an expert in voice-enabled technology at Carnegie Mellon University. And while today’s smartphones have powerful processors, he added, they don’t have the capabilities of more specialized processors used in big data centers.

Apple collects plenty of data from its users, but hasn’t “focused on connecting all the dots,” said Raj Singh, co-founder of Tempo AI, an artificial intelligence startup acquired by Salesforce.com last year.

Google, of course, makes money from advertising that’s keyed to individual interests. Apple, which makes most of its money from iPhones, says its software respects customer privacy by working with an individual’s data on the iPhone or iPad, while anonymizing information that’s uploaded to its servers.