Apple revealed a series of enhancement to its Siri digital assistant on Thursday, but the tech giant still trails rivals such as Google and Amazon in the red-hot field of artificial intelligence, experts say.
Apple’s most important step was iPhone assistant to third-party developers for inclusion in their apps, highlighting the way for users to hail a ride from Uber or send a message with Tencent’s WeChat using voice commands.
“Is it too little too late?” asked Oren Etzioni, who is CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and a professor at the University of Washington. “Siri is five years old and still trying to learn how to play well with others.”
Noting that, artificial intelligence includes giving computers the ability to perform functions normally done by people such as speech recognition.
Digital assistants powered by voice could perform many tasks that which at the moment need a smartphone app or a keyboard and a mouse, and thus they are considered a key strategic battlefield for all the major tech companies.
“This is a new platform war with huge stakes,”said Gary Morgenthaler, a venture capitalist who invested in Siri when it was a startup. “It ultimately challenges search and the market capitalization of Google.”
Apple may have squandered some of its momentum. The tech giant essentially created the category by purchasing Siri, the startup behind the eponymous digital assistant, which quickly became a cultural touchstone after its release on the iPhone.
As a startup, Siri worked with a variety of popular apps, but Apple cut off third-party access to the service shortly after the acquisition. Apple’s move on Monday brings the assistant closer to the original vision for it, said Morgenthaler.
“It’s pretty sad for those of us who were part of the original team,” he said. “The rate of innovation has been less than what we would have imagined.”
On the other hand lies concerns about Apple’s aptitude for artificial intelligence: The company was slow to recruit talent relative to peers such as Google and Amazon, and its strict privacy stance limits data collection, which is critical for making assistants smarter. Monday’s announcement did little to allay those fears, Etzioni said.
“We see some policy shifts, we see some small changes, but there was no explosive announcement,” he said.
However Apple took other steps to weave artificial intelligence more tightly into its operating system. The Photos app will soon study users’ images to help them organize shots of favorite trips and occasions. The company said it has also made progress in determining the context of a message, helping it serve up better replies for users.
“Apple is in the hunt, working hard on this,” Morgenthaler said. “They are maybe a step behind Google, but I would say they are close enough that Google is not going to leave them in the dust.”