On Siri’s Voice

David Pierce, writing for Wired:

When I ask Acero what he learned about why the voice worked so well, he laughs because the answer is so obvious. “It is natural!” he says. “It was not robotic!” This hardly counts as a revelation for Acero. Mostly, it confirmed that his team at Apple has spent the last few years on the right project: making Siri sound more human.

This fall, when iOS 11 hits millions of iPhones and iPads around the world, the new software will give Siri a new voice. It doesn’t include many new features or tell better jokes, but you’ll notice the difference. Siri now takes more pauses in sentences, elongates syllables right before a pause, and the speech lilts up and down as it speaks. The words sound more fluid and Siri speaks more languages, too. It’s nicer to listen to, and to talk to.

Siri’s voice does sound more natural in iOS 11, and this is most definitely a good thing. It’s the voice assistant equivalent to getting a better UI font or retina graphics for a visual UI. But: if given a choice between a Siri that sounds better but works the same, or a Siri that sounds the same but works better, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t choose the latter.

Such slow-moving has cost Apple its lead in many people’s eyes, as Amazon and Google hoover up developer support and race ahead in features. Joswiak at least projects patience. The question, he says, is not how many things Siri could do. “It’s ‘how do you do it right?’ Because what we didn’t want to do is become prescriptive.” He bristles at Amazon’s and Google’s demanding syntax, which require you to say things like, “Alexa, ask Daily Horoscopes about Taurus” or “OK Google, let me talk to Todoist.” He’d rather wait until you just say what you want, however you want, and have it happen. Apple, as always, prefers doing nothing to doing something halfway.

I get this, and agree with Apple’s sentiments here. I think the rigid, convoluted syntax required by Alexa is maddening. It’s like speaking a command line, not talking. But even so, Siri, as it stands today, is at best a halfway product. Again, I’m pro-Siri in the voice assistant debate, but even so I think it’s generous to describe it as “halfway”. The whole category is garbage, Siri included. And frankly, it just doesn’t feel like Apple has made as much progress in six years as they should have.

Something went wrong in Siri’s development, and it wasn’t the voice quality.

Friday, 8 September 2017