If you’ve ever used Apple’s Siri, you probably know the digital assistant has specific strengths and weaknesses, including annoyances that have stopped some people from using it at all. Instead of a top-to-bottom refresh of the service, Apple has spent nearly a decade making small improvements to various features, and another one’s on the way. The company has acquired an Irish voice AI company called Voysis to help fix one of Siri’s most glaring issues.
While Siri has scored pretty well on Loup Ventures’ annual Digital Assistant IQ test, a relatively young but impressively broad canvassing of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft AI assistants, the nine-year-old service has continued to lag behind both Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa in the key category of “commerce.” Google Assistant answered 92% of commerce-related inquiries correctly, but Siri achieved only 68% accuracy on this metric, its worst performance in any measured category.
Apple hasn’t confirmed how much it paid for Voysis, but the deal is akin to buying Siri an expensive private retailing tutor, if not a brain implant. Assuming Voysis’ technology is properly integrated into Siri, Apple devices could quickly become more conversational, particularly when facilitating ecommerce transactions.
Voysis built a business on facilitating “rich natural language interactions between brands and users,” developing conversational interfaces that could run directly on mobile devices — while consuming as little as 25 megabytes of space — rather than requiring a persistent connection to cloud servers. By training its AI using company-specific data, ranging from names to categories and descriptions, Voysis enabled a higher degree of accuracy when responding to spoken requests related to company-specific products or services. Another part of its technology used Google-developed WaveNets to create realistically human-sounding synthetic voices so spoken responses based on each company’s proper nouns would sound more natural.
Signaling Voysis’ value to major brands, its site — now offline — showed the platform being used for voice recognition by Nike, enabling highly specific commerce requests, such as “show me running sneakers,” “only show me Air Max,” and “add these in size 11 to my cart,” as well as category-specific requests for blue-colored shirts for running, made of Dri-Fit material, and in a hoodie style. Critically, requests could be discrete and uttered all at once or processed as refinements to an initial query, addressing another major weakness Siri has had, this time with follow-up requests.
It’s unclear how deep Voysis’ integration with Siri will go, but leveraging AI to improve the assistant has been a push for the company since it hired Google’s AI chief John Giannandrea in 2018. At a minimum, developers of third-party apps with Siri features will probably see deeper OS-level understanding of key terminology, but it’s highly likely that Apple will use Voysis tech to make Siri smarter and more nimble across the board. Siri improvements traditionally lag roughly a year behind acquisitions, making 2021 the earliest users should expect to benefit from the deal.