Siri has been a part of Apple’s smartphones since the iPhone 4s launched in 2011, but since then competitors like Google and Microsoft have released their own, more contextual and intuitive virtual assistants. That may not be the case for too long, however. A new report from Wired suggests that Apple is beefing up its own speech recognition team to make Siri faster and more intelligent.
Siri is currently powered by technology from Nuance Communications, as Nuance CEO Paul Ricci confirmed to Walt Mossberg on stage at the D11 conference in 2013. Abdel-rahman Mohamed, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto who was recently hired by Apple, told Wired the company is hiring its own speech recognition experts at various levels, which include managerial, team-leading, and research roles. He added that Apple is building a “very strong team for speech recognition research.”
Microsoft uses a system known as neural networks to power some of its newest virtual assistant technology, which include its real-time Star Trek-like translator for Skype.* The term “neural networks” refers to the idea that machine learning models could work a lot like neurons in the human brain. Wired’s Robert McMillan hints that Apple could be gravitating toward this type of technology for Siri.
Neural networks were met with skepticism when the technology was initially introduced, but its allowed Microsoft to accomplish some impressive breakthroughs in recent years. Its real-time Skype translator, for example, can not only translate languages immediately, but also gets smarter as it learns more languages. The system’s previously learned languages also improve as it absorbs languages. For instance, if the system learns Chinese after learning French and English, its French and English skills would also improve as it learns Chinese.
Microsoft’s Vikram Dendi, a technical and strategy advisor for Microsoft Research, said the company would be “far away from getting this to the user” if it wasn’t for neural networks in a previous interview with Business Insider.
So what does this mean for Siri? If Wired’s report turns out to be true, we could see this type of learning functionality come to Apple’s virtual assistant. Right now, Siri functions as more of a voice-enabled search feature. You can ask it questions and it’ll pull answers from a bevy of resources, but it doesn’t really improve the more you use it.
Microsoft and Google’s respective digital assistants, Cortana and Google Now, have a one-up on Siri because they’re designed to learn more about you and your habits as you use them more often. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Apple catch up in that sense.
Correction, July 1, 2014: This post originally misspelled Star Trek.