Report Details Turmoil Behind Apple's AI Efforts, 'Siri X,' and Headset Voice Controls

Siri and Apple's use of AI has been severely held back by caution and organizational dysfunction, according to over three dozen former Apple employees who spoke to The Information's Wayne Ma.

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The extensive paywalled report explains why former Apple employees who worked in the company's AI and machine learning groups believe that a lack of ambition and organizational dysfunction have hindered ‌Siri‌ and the company's AI technologies. Apple's virtual assistant is apparently "widely derided" inside the company for its lack of functionality and minimal improvement over time.

By 2018, the team working on ‌Siri‌ had apparently "devolved into a mess, driven by petty turf battles between senior leaders and heated arguments over the direction of the assistant." ‌Siri‌'s leadership did not want to invest in building tools to analyse ‌Siri‌'s usage and engineers lacked the ability to obtain basic details such as how many people were using the virtual assistant and how often they were doing so. The data that was obtained about ‌Siri‌ coming from the data science and engineering team was simply not being used, with some former employees calling it "a waste of time and money."

Many Apple employees purportedly left the company because it was too slow to make decisions or too conservative in its approach to new AI technologies, including the large-language models that underpin chatbots like ChatGPT. Apple CEO Tim Cook personally attempted to persuade engineers who helped Apple modernize its search technology to stay at the company, before they left to work on large-language models at Google.

Apple executives are said to have dismissed proposals to give ‌Siri‌ the ability to conduct extended back-and-forth conversations, claiming that the feature would be difficult to control and gimmicky. Apple's uncompromising stance on privacy has also created challenges for enhancing ‌Siri‌, with the company pushing for more of the virtual assistant's functions to be performed on-device.

Cook and other senior executives requested changes to ‌Siri‌ to prevent embarassing responses and the company prefers ‌Siri‌'s responses to be pre-written by a team of around 20 writers, rather than AI-generated. There were also specific decisions to exclude information such as iPhone prices from ‌Siri‌ to push users directly to Apple's website instead.

‌Siri‌ engineers working on the feature that uses material from the web to answer questions clashed with the design team over how accurate the responses had to be in 2019. The design team demanded a near-perfect accuracy rate before the feature could be released.

Engineers claim to have spent months persuading ‌Siri‌ designers that not every one of its answers needed human verification, a limitation that made it impossible to scale up ‌Siri‌ to answer the huge number of questions asked by users. Similarly, Apple's design team repeatedly rejected the feature that enabled users to report a concern or issue with the content of a ‌Siri‌ answer, preventing machine-learning engineers from understanding mistakes, because it wanted ‌Siri‌ to appear "all-knowing."

In 2019, the ‌Siri‌ team explored a project to rewrite the virtual assistant from scratch, codenamed "Blackbird." The effort sought to create a lightweight version of ‌Siri‌ that would delegate the creation of functions to app developers and would run on iPhones instead of the cloud to improve performance and privacy. Demos of Blackbird apparently prompted excitement among Apple employees owing to its utility and responsiveness.

Blackbird competed with the work of two senior leaders on the ‌Siri‌ team who were responsible for helping ‌Siri‌ understand and respond to queries. These individuals pushed for their own project, codenamed "‌Siri‌ X," for the 10th anniversary of the virtual assistant. The project simply aimed to move ‌Siri‌'s processing on-device for privacy reasons, without the lightweight, modular functionality of Blackbird.

Hundreds of employees working on Blackbird were assigned to ‌Siri‌ X, which killed the ambitious project to make ‌Siri‌ more capable. ‌Siri‌ X was mostly completed in 2021 and now many of the voice assistant's functions are processed locally.

Most recently, the group working on Apple's mixed reality headset were reportedly disappointed by the demonstrations provided by the ‌Siri‌ team on how the virtual assistant could control the headset. At one point in the device's development, the headset team considered building an alternative method for controlling the device using voice commands because ‌Siri‌ was deemed to be unsatisfactory.

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Top Rated Comments

Will Co Avatar
15 months ago
The single biggest thing that Apple needs to improve right now. And by a large margin. And a huge level of improvement. And yesterday. In fact, about 5 years ago. Please Apple, it's so embarrassing. And so frustrating. Get on top of this. This is a spectacular failure of leadership.
Score: 120 Votes (Like | Disagree)
orbital~debris Avatar
15 months ago

Tim Cooks
And also runs Apple in his spare time.
Score: 52 Votes (Like | Disagree)
contacos Avatar
15 months ago
In short: Apple bought Siri many years ago, everyone from the initial team has left the company since and Apple has no idea what to do with it (lacking expertise in that area)
Score: 44 Votes (Like | Disagree)
gank41 Avatar
15 months ago
[My experience with Siri in nutshell]

Me: "Hey Siri, play George Harrison's Album All Things Must Pass"
Siri: "Ok, playing songs from a Passed Album of things by people named George"
Score: 38 Votes (Like | Disagree)
icanhazmac Avatar
15 months ago

The company's uncompromising stance on privacy has also proven challenging for enhancing Siri, with Apple pushing for more of the virtual assistant's functions to be performed on-device.
I'll accept Siri having limited capabilities versus all of my requests being sent to a "mothership" for processing, collection and sale.

Alexa may be more functional but I don't trust it (Amazon) at all from a privacy standpoint.
Score: 38 Votes (Like | Disagree)
thebeans Avatar
15 months ago

To her defense I must say that speech-to-text (at least in Swedish) works great. She’s not that helpful otherwise except for setting timers and other mundane tasks.
And speaking of setting timers, why is it the $30 Alexa in my kitchen can set multiple timers and my $1000 iPhone 14 Pro can only set one?
Score: 38 Votes (Like | Disagree)