Walt Mossberg: ‘Why Does Siri Seem So Dumb?’

Walt Mossberg:

So why does Siri seem so dumb? Why are its talents so limited? Why does it stumble so often? When was the last time Siri delighted you with a satisfying and surprising answer or action?

I have an answer for this: when I discovered during the NBA playoffs that Siri can tell you the Vegas betting odds for sporting events.

In recent weeks, on multiple Apple devices, Siri has been unable to tell me the names of the major-party candidates for president and vice president of the United States. Or when they were debating. Or when the Emmy awards show was due to be on. Or the date of the World Series. […]

Google Now, on the same Apple devices, using the same voice input, answered every one of these questions clearly and correctly. And that isn’t even Google’s latest digital helper, the new Google Assistant.

If you try most of these broken examples right now, they’ll work properly, because Apple fixed them after I tweeted screenshots of most of them in exasperation, and asked the company about them.

Indeed, Siri now knows the date and time of the next U.S. presidential debate, but where Siri fundamentally falls apart is its inability to maintain context and chain together multiple commands. Here was my interaction trying this just now, transcribed exactly as Siri heard me:

Me: When is the next presidential debate?1

Siri: The third 2016 presidential debate will take place from 9:00pm to 10:30pm ET on Wednesday, October 19 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Me: OK add it to my calendar.

Siri: OK, tell me the date and time of your event.

Me: Add the next presidential debate to my calendar.

Siri: I didn’t find any appointments about ‘presidential debate’ in the next three months.

Another attempt:

Me: When is the next presidential debate?

Siri: The third 2016 presidential debate will take place from 9:00pm to 10:30pm ET on Wednesday, October 19 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Me: Remind me about it one hour before it starts.

Siri: OK, I’ll remind you to ‘It starts’. When would you like to be reminded?

Five years in, this seems like a reasonable (and useful) thing to expect Siri to be able to do.2


For instance, when I asked Siri on my Mac how long it would take me to get to work, it said it didn’t have my work address — even though the “me” contact card contains a work address and the same synced contact card on my iPhone allowed Siri to give me an answer.

Similarly, on my iPad, when I asked what my next appointment was, it said “Sorry, Walt, something’s wrong” — repeatedly, with slightly different wording, in multiple places on multiple days. But, using the same Apple calendar and data, Siri answered correctly on the iPhone.

These sort of glaring inconsistencies are almost as bad as universal failures. The big problem Apple faces with Siri is that when people encounter these problems, they stop trying. It feels like you’re wasting your time, and makes you feel silly or even foolish for having tried. I worry that even if Apple improves Siri significantly, people will never know it because they won’t bother trying because they were burned so many times before. In addition to the engineering hurdles to actually make Siri much better, Apple also has to overcome a “boy who cried wolf” credibility problem.

I think “assistant” is the exact right term for this class of software. But I can’t imagine how stupid an actual human assistant would have to be not to understand a request like “Find out when the next debate is and put it on my calendar.”

  1. Even worse: If I ask “When is the next US presidential debate?” (note the “US”), Siri parses it correctly but instead of answering, falls back to an offer to display search results from the web. It seems wrong that a more specific query would fail. ↩︎

  2. To be fair, I tried the same two-step sequence (when’s the next debate?; add it to my calendar) with Google Assistant running in the Allo app on Android, and it failed in the same way. I remain unconvinced that Siri is behind the competition, and even if it is, I don’t think it’s by much. ↩︎︎