Apple struggles with the idea of intelligent life outside Cupertino
Siri opened up and AI expanded – but only to a point
In the age-old tech struggle between open and controlled systems, Apple has realized that when it comes to artificial intelligence, it needs to edge toward open.
The computer giant has announced it will be opening up its digital assistant Siri to third-party apps and at the same time has put out an API to its artificial intelligence technology.
Realistically, the company has been given little choice: Amazon's Alexa has taken off, in large part due to it opening up to other companies, and Google's artificial intelligence systems have streaked ahead of Apple and Siri because when it comes to such a complex and wide-ranging interplay of information and action, broader is better.
Where Siri was once a wonder – it worked where other systems didn't – it risks becoming an also-ran, with only Apple fanbois crowding round it in excitement at the latest nerd joke.
Not that Apple is taking the news well. Many are pointing to the company's firm privacy policies – where it keeps as much information about you on your phone and nowhere else – to explain why both Siri and the AI API will do their work on your device rather than in the cloud. But the reality is that it fits neatly with the company's control freak tendencies.
So under the API for its "basic neural network subroutines" – BNNS – your system will only work with the "training data" that Apple supplies.
The documentation notes: "BNNS supports implementation and operation of neural networks for inference, using input data previously derived from training. BNNS does not do training, however. Its purpose is to provide very high-performance inference on already trained neural networks."
In other words, we will remain in control at all times.
Likewise the new SiriKit. Apple made big play of the fact it is (finally) opening it up. But it's only a partial kimono opening – a flash of leg perhaps.
You can use Siri – but only for certain things: calling, messaging, payments, photos, workouts and "ride booking" (ah, the ever-present Uber). Apple is trying to keep a tight rein on things. And it is not opening it up to text, just voice.
It's a shame because when Apple first bought Siri (yes, it did not develop it in-house), it was starting to take off precisely because of third-party access. Apple soon put a stop to that. And it has lagged as a result.
Will this forced, partial opening up of its AI offerings help the company keep up with Amazon and Google? Probably, yes, given the Apple fanbase.
Will it overtake them? No. But then there is the privacy argument to fall back on, so Apple almost certainly won't feel the need to ask itself that question. ®