Apple’s digital personal assistant Siri currently has a huge number of limitations, but one is particularly obvious to users without cellular connections: Siri only works when connected to the internet. A new patent application suggests Apple is planning to change that by giving Siri an offline mode — one that the assistant can fall back upon when an internet connection isn’t available.
Currently, Siri depends so much on internet access that it cannot function without it. When wireless features are disabled in Airplane Mode, even an attempt to ask the current time — information that’s on the device — leads to a demurral that “I’m having some trouble with the connection.” That’s because Siri quietly relies on Apple’s servers, rather than the device itself, to interpret a user’s speech and provide a response.
Apple’s patent application suggests it wants to bifurcate Siri into two systems: an on-device Siri and a server-side Siri, now with the ability to determine which of the two services produces a higher “usefulness score” for the user’s spoken request. If the device’s Siri has a higher usefulness score — or is the only available option — it will be used to respond to the user, but if the response from the server is available and better, the second option will be used.
The keys to making this a reality are on-device processing power and a sufficient database of locally stored knowledge capable of handling user requests. Even though Apple’s devices have the ability to process Siri requests in roughly as much time as it takes to send data over the internet and wait for a response, the company has historically suggested that it didn’t want to burden its mobile devices with the added processing and database storage demands necessary to make that happen.
However, Apple has been increasingly focused on bulking up its AI chips over the past two years, introducing and then dramatically improving the performance of Neural Engines within its A11 and A12 series processors. Adding a local Siri database would likely come with a major update to iOS, such as the expected release of iOS 13 at next June’s Worldwide Developers Conference.
Apple’s patent application was published today and originally filed in September 2017, suggesting that the offline Siri feature has been in the works for some time. Whether the functionality actually makes it into the next version of iOS will remain a question mark for at least the next seven months. But given recent Siri hiring at Apple, major iOS 12 Siri improvements, and the pace of new device releases with A11 and A12 chips, it seems likely to happen sooner rather than later.