October 15, 2011

· IT · Nerdery

Some quick comments on using Siri in practice—for things other than asking it to open the pod bay doors. Siri’s voice recognition is very impressive, and the scope of what it understands is very good given the difficulty of what it’s doing. But it has a lot of trouble with certain sorts of proper names, and certain kinds of contexts.

On the first issue, take Irish names, for example, which are completely intuitive to someone with a bit of a blas, but admittedly are often not spelled in the way a naive English speaker would pronounce them. For example there are a lot of people in Ireland named “Aoife”. It’s a very popular girl’s name, and it is of course pronounced “Eee-fah”. As you might expect, Siri can’t handle it at all. That’s a difficult case, but there are a lot of other similarly tricky names in the world, and not just Irish-origin ones. Failure to recognize names really messes up the ability to ask certain questions (e.g. about birthdays), tell Siri about network ties (e.g. who is my daughter), or set appointments with specific people. I doubt users will long tolerate being forced to systematically mispronounce their own or their spouse’s name in order to set up meetings, for example.[1]

On the second issue, Siri’s handling of contextual meanings is very strong in some ways, but not in others. Some real world examples, the good and bad, based on a morning’s worth of use:

  • My calendar has an appointment named “Duke flu clinic, Student Union (walk-in)“. I can ask Siri “When is my flu clinic appointment?” and it gives me the right answer. Pretty good! As has been documented in various reviews, you can also say things like “When is my next haircut?” or have Siri follow local temporal contexts like “Make an appointment with John for 4:30 next Wednesday”, “Make that 5:30”.
  • But let’s say I have a shared calendar with my wife, Laurieā€”a possibility Apple is aware of, given the emphasis on “Send a message to my wife” etc. She writes a calendar entry that reads “Kieran volunteers at school”. If I ask Siri “When do I volunteer at school?” it fails, launching a Safari search for “When do I volunteer at school?“. If I ask “When does Kieran volunteer at school?” it fails as well, saying “I found 11 schools nearby, 7 of them are fairly close to you”. To get the right answer I must ask the unnaturally context-free question, “When is ‘Kieran volunteers at school’?” because it can’t deal with the tense changes or indexicals. In a similar way if you have an appointment reading “Dentist” you can’t ask “When is my dental appointment?”
  • Some more subtle but telling failures: For joint calendars, you can’t ask questions like “When does Laurie travel to Boston?” even if Laurie has entered an event named “Travel to Boston” in her calendar. Worse, the simpler case fails too. If I have an event called “Travel to Boston” in my own calendar, asking “When do I travel to Boston?” causes Siri to interpret it as an advice-type question, and it searches Google for “When do I travel to Boston?”. Asking “When do I go to Boston?” fails as well. (Result: a map and “Here’s Boston”.) In this case even speaking the literal title of the event fails: “When is ‘Travel to Boston’?” results in a Google search. “When is my trip to Boston?” will not work either. Only “When is my Travel to Boston?” works. If the event is called “Talk at Tufts”, Siri will not understand “When do I talk at Tufts?”, but will understand “When is my talk at Tufts?”.

Again, it’s basically very impressive. But I guess the question is how fast Siri will improve at interpretation, and how willing users will be to take the time to self-censor or carefully craft both event names and questions about events that they know Siri will understand.

[1] Update: Charles Starrett suggested using the phonetic first and last name fields in contacts, which Voice Control can apparently take advantage of. I tried this but it didn’t seem to have any effect on Siri.

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