How generative AI can fix Siri, Alexa, and hopefully Google Assistant as well.

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Voice assistants hold a lot of promise, but in the decades since Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa first made their way into our lives, their most compelling use is still setting timers. Competition from Google's Assistant (and Samsung's Bixby, if we're being charitable) failed to ignite a spark of innovation in this space, and in many ways, voice control has lagged behind. These assistants regularly misunderstand, mishear, and sometimes don't listen at all. They are a far cry from the active, indeed smart digital assistants they were originally designed to be.

Enter generative AI: the technology voice assistants need to transform them from novel to essential. At its Worldwide Developers Conference this week, Apple announced plans to infuse its long-neglected Assistant with emerging tech, giving Siri two key skills: context and conversation. This is a recipe for fulfilling that original promise, or at least bringing us very close.

Apple says its Apple Intelligence will bring Siri “all new superpowers” derived from improved language understanding, personal context awareness, and the ability to process apps on your phone. .

Where the current Siri requires clear instructions on what to do and how to do it, Apple promises that this new version will let you say something like, “Siri, when does mom's flight land?” And Assistant will know how to look at your mail and messages and extract information. Then you can say, “How long will it take me to get there?” And it should know you mean the airport and pull the route and ETA through Maps.

This seemingly minor improvement addresses the fundamental problems of voice assistants.

You won't even need to do the phrase commands correctly. Instead of saying “Siri, set a timer for 10 minutes,” you should be able to rattle off a phrase like, “Siri, set an alarm for — oh, wait, no, a timer for 10 minutes. Set it to 5, actually, and Assistant will fix it.

These seemingly minor improvements solve some of the fundamental problems with voice assistants — they don't understand you enough and you need to speak in unnaturally accurate ways to get them to do anything — that have made the technology so popular. Turned promising pieces into little more than spectacular alarm clocks.

Siri, Alexa, etc. There are already artificially intelligent voice assistants: machines that mimic human-like intelligence through a combination of command-and-response programming and machine learning. But with the power of generative AI and LLMs, voice assistants have the ability to generate responses based on what they've learned, rather than just reacting with existing knowledge.

It should provide the tools to build a more interactive, smarter voice assistant — one that promises to be far more useful than what we have today. But all we've seen so far are demos of this capability, none of which exist in real life yet.

Making voice assistants smarter isn't as simple as giving Siri and Alexa a ChatGPT-style lobotomy

That's because building a super-intelligent voice assistant is a huge challenge with equally big potential ramifications if it goes wrong. It's not even as simple as giving Siri and Alexa a ChatGPT-style lobotomy.

Voice assistants, especially those connected to devices and services in our phones and homes, are a different animal than a chatbot in a browser. They have the ability to take action in the real world: doing things like controlling our thermostats and lights and sending emails and messages. That's not where you want to put a possibly hallucinatory AI in control, and it speaks to why Apple has carefully sandboxed its ChatGPT integration with Siri.

Amazon is also working on a new and improved voice assistant, and while the company says it has already integrated generative AI into Alexa components, according to a report good fortunethe new Alexa isn't even close to being ready.

The company announced the “newest, smarter and more conversational Alexa” powered by a new Alexa LLM last fall with an impressive demo. He used an Alexa that should understand conversational phrases for more human-like interactions, interpret context more effectively, and complete multiple requests with a single command – e.g. “Alexa, call mom, turn on the living room lights, and close the front door.”

But we've seen no sign of that superpower Alexa, just vague assurances that it's in a limited preview. This may be because, according to good fortunethe company is struggling to integrate the older Alexa and its capabilities with its vision for a next-generation voice assistant.

Likewise, Apple is taking a slow and steady approach. The new Siri won't launch until the fall, and even then it'll be labeled a beta. It also won't have a place in the smart home in the first place: it's not supported on any of Apple's voice-forward, home-based devices such as the HomePod smart speaker and Apple TV. It's not coming to the Apple Watch yet.

The new Siri is not supported on any of Apple's Voice Forward, home devices such as HomePods and Apple TV.

While these devices don't have enough processing power to run generative models, many of which Apple wants to run natively for privacy purposes, this feels like a big gap. The smart home is a prime place for a more intelligent voice assistant, not only can it help eliminate personal and home spaces, but it can help make running a smart home much easier.

Dave Lump, Amazon's former head of devices and services, told me last year that the new Alexa LLM he's building has been trained on hundreds of smart home APIs. This can give Alexa the context it needs to manage smart home devices like lights, locks, thermostats, etc., making them easier to set up and use, and give you commands. Say something like, “Alexa, it's dark in here and I'm cold,” and the voice assistant will know what to do.

Unlike Apple, Amazon has said that its new Alexa will come to all of its Echo smart speakers, including the first Echo released in 2014. Now four years old, I guess we'll see a new model with updated hardware designed for AI very soon. Apple can no longer afford to hand the house over to Alexa.

The new Siri doesn't work on the HomePod Mini, which means there may be a new Mini on the way.
Photo by Jennifer Pattison-Touhy/The Verge

While the stage is set for the second coming of the voice assistant, there's still a long way to go until we see Act 1. It's also possible that the show will open with some completely new characters if these companies can't find a way to effectively deal with them. Build new technology on old foundations.

It is entirely possible that Google will launch a brand new voice assistant.

Google seems to be taking the same route. Its Google Assistant voice assistant is yet to undergo a major AI overhaul, with the company reportedly pouring all its resources into the new AI-powered Gemini assistant. While a symbiosis seems like a natural move there, given Google's penchant for abandoning the old, it's entirely possible that the company will launch an entirely new voice assistant built from the ground up on creative AI.

However they get there, the promise of these smart voice assistants is exciting, especially for any company that can effectively integrate personal assistants with the home. Imagine if your HomePod could welcome you home with personalized updates, let you know traffic means you have to leave 15 minutes early for your daughter's school play, And your EV will be charged with enough range to get you there on the way out. The Door is pretty much what we were promised – and it's a lot smarter than setting a timer.

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