Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for March 9th, 2018

The Original Siri App Compared to Siri Today

In 2010, Tom Gruber created an impressive demo video of Siri, his company’s new app. It showed how someone could use relatively natural language requests to get things done on an iPhone using little more than their voice, and effectively kicked off the virtual assistant wave since.

Kevin Clark reflected on that video today:

It’s fascinating that the original Siri demo is still better than today’s Siri in a few aspects.

For fun and frustration, I tried all of the original commands featured in that eight year old video on my iPhone:

  • I’d like a romantic place for Italian food near my office”: Siri today correctly parses everything up until “near my office”, which it interprets as near me. I tried using the name of the organization that I work for instead of my office and it also interpreted that as near me.

    Then I tried asking Siri to find me restaurants near the address of my office. It interpreted that as an instruction to find restaurants in Cranbrook, BC — about 400 kilometres or four hours away. I don’t see why I should have to specify that I’m looking for restaurants in Calgary.

  • I’d like a table for two at Il Fornaio in San Jose tomorrow night at 7:30”: I tried using this exact phrasing — of course, swapping out Il Fornaio for a restaurant near me — and I was told that Siri “can’t book a table right now”. That felt like a failure until I tried rephrasing asking it “how about next Friday?”, at which point I was prompted to continue making the reservation using OpenTable. I was impressed that it kept the context intact.

    However, when I tried again with the request, “I’d like a table for two at Model Milk next Friday at 7:30”, I received the same “can’t book a table right now” error, and I can’t seem to reproduce the apparent success I had earlier. That’s frustrating; I was very impressed with the first apparent success, despite the vague error message.

  • Where can I see Avatar in 3D IMAX?”: I swapped “Avatar” for a better film but otherwise kept the request the same. Siri successfully found a theatre showing it in 3D — as far as I know, there isn’t a 3D IMAX showing near me — but I wasn’t able to buy tickets through Siri and it doesn’t check the showtimes against other calendar events, like a dinner reservation. To be fair, Siri has never allowed you to buy movie tickets in Canada because Fandango isn’t available here, but I also have the (terrible) Cineplex app installed — I wish there were some connection between the two.

    One thing I noticed when I tested several phrasings of this is that Siri only responds to full theatre names. All of the theatres near me have very long names, but nobody here actually uses the full name. For example, when I tried asking for “showtimes for Black Panther at Eau Claire”, Siri got confused. It also transcribed Eau Claire wrong most times I tried it, but that’s not necessarily relevant here. It wasn’t until I asked for “showtimes for Black Panther at Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire Market” that I got an answer. I wish it responded to fuzzier matches.

  • What’s happening this weekend around here?”: Siri interprets this as a request for news headlines, not events as in the original Siri app.

    When I tried rephrasing this question to “what events are happening this weekend”, it did a web search in Google, but without my location. It wasn’t until I asked “what events are happening in Calgary this weekend” that I got a web search with links to local event calendars.

    In the original Siri demo, they extend this by asking “how about San Francisco?”, so I did the same. It returned the weather forecast for this evening in San Francisco.

  • Take me drunk I’m home”: Today’s Siri did well here, responding “I can’t be your designated driver”, and offering to call me a taxi.

All of this may vary depending on where you’re located, what Siri localization you have, and even what device you use Siri on.

What’s clear to me is that the Siri of eight years ago was, in some circumstances, more capable than the Siri of today. That could simply be because the demo video was created in Silicon Valley, and things tend to perform better there than almost anywhere else. But it’s been eight years since that was created, and over seven since Siri was integrated into the iPhone. One would think that it should be at least as capable as it was when Apple bought it.

It’s no secret that Siri often feels like it has languished, and almost nothing demonstrates that more than the original demo. I’m sure there are domains where it performs better than the original — for example, it works, to varying extents, in countries outside of the United States. It works with more languages than just English, too. That’s all very important, but it boggles my mind that even some of the simpler stuff — like asking for restaurants near a different location — fails today, even in English.

I’d like to hear from readers who have time to attempt this same demo where they live. Please let me know if you give it a try; I would love to know the results.

Farhad Manjoo Unplugged From the Internet for His News Apart From in All of the Ways He Didn’t

Farhad Manjoo, New York Times:

This has been my life for nearly two months. In January, after the breaking-newsiest year in recent memory, I decided to travel back in time. I turned off my digital news notifications, unplugged from Twitter and other social networks, and subscribed to home delivery of three print newspapers — The Times, The Wall Street Journal and my local paper, The San Francisco Chronicle — plus a weekly newsmagazine, The Economist.

Dan Mitchell, Columbia Journalism Review:

But he didn’t really unplug from social media at all. The evidence is right there in his Twitter feed, just below where he tweeted out his column: Manjoo remained a daily, active Twitter user throughout the two months he claims to have gone cold turkey, tweeting many hundreds of times, perhaps more than 1,000. In an email interview on Thursday, he stuck to his story, essentially arguing that the gist of what he wrote remains true, despite the tweets throughout his self-imposed hiatus.

The biggest problem with Manjoo’s piece is that it is framed as “unplugging” from social media, when it’s really just a reduction in using it as a primary source for news. It’s more subtle and makes for a way less interesting headline, but it’s more honest.

By the way, I find the entire genre of tech writers writing about not using technology so trite. Beyond that, it’s 2018 — telling people not to follow news accounts on Twitter is just yelling into the wind. Want a few tips for reading the news? Here are four things I try to do, for whatever it’s worth:

  • Resist the urge to react immediately.

  • Resist the urge to refresh feeds and news sources when bored. News will happen regardless.

  • During a breaking news event, nothing makes sense to anyone, so keep that in mind when reading the first wave of reporting on it.

  • Twitter threads tend to be tedious and unnecessary.

Maybe those tips will be useful to you; maybe they won’t. Maybe they’re things you do already without thinking about it. But at least you didn’t have to pretend to stop using Twitter for two months to figure it out.

FBI Director Imagines a World of Unicorns, Dragons, and Secure Encryption That Can Be Sidestepped by Law Enforcement

Tim Cushing of Techdirt, responding to FBI Director Chris Wray:

We have a whole bunch of folks at FBI Headquarters devoted to explaining this challenge and working with stakeholders to find a way forward. But we need and want the private sector’s help. We need them to respond to lawfully issued court orders, in a way that is consistent with both the rule of law and strong cybersecurity. We need to have both, and can have both. I recognize this entails varying degrees of innovation by the industry to ensure lawful access is available. But I just don’t buy the claim that it’s impossible.

It really doesn’t matter whether or not Wray “buys” this claim. If you deliberately weaken encryption — either through key escrow or by making it easier to bypass — the encryption no longer offers the protection it did before it was compromised. That’s the thing about facts. They’re not like cult leaders. They don’t need a bunch of true believers hanging around to retain their strength.

The thing that bothers me most about Wray’s insistence that a magical “secure but accessible only by law enforcement” encryption standard is that technical experts at the FBI surely know that it isn’t possible, yet he keeps making the claim that it is. Does Wray simply not pay attention to his employees?