The New York Times Declares That Voice Assistants Have Lost the ‘AI Race’

Brian X. Chen, Nico Grant, and Karen Weise, New York Times:

On a rainy Tuesday in San Francisco, Apple executives took the stage in a crowded auditorium to unveil the fifth-generation iPhone. The phone, which looked identical to the previous version, had a new feature that the audience was soon buzzing about: Siri, a virtual assistant.

This first paragraph vignette has problems — and, no, I cannot help myself. The iPhone 4S and Siri were unveiled on October 4, 2011 at Apple’s campus in Cupertino, not in San Francisco, and it did not rain until that night in San Francisco. It was a Tuesday, though.

Please note there are three bylines on this story.

Anyway, the authors of this Times story attempt to illustrate how voice assistants, like Siri and Alexa, have been outdone by products like OpenAI’s ChatGPT:

The assistants and the chatbots are based on different flavors of A.I. Chatbots are powered by what are known as large language models, which are systems trained to recognize and generate text based on enormous data sets scraped off the web. They can then suggest words to complete a sentence.

In contrast, Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant are essentially what are known as command-and-control systems. These can understand a finite list of questions and requests like “What’s the weather in New York City?” or “Turn on the bedroom lights.” If a user asks the virtual assistant to do something that is not in its code, the bot simply says it can’t help.

The article’s conclusion? The architecture of voice assistants has precluded them from becoming meaningful players in artificial intelligence. They have “squandered their lead in the A.I. race”; the headline outright says they have “lost”. But hold on — it seems pretty early to declare outright winners and losers, right?

John Voorhees of MacStories sure thinks so:

It’s not surprising that sources have told The New York Times that Apple is researching the latest advances in artificial intelligence. All you have to do is visit the company’s Machine Learning Research website to see that. But to declare a winner in ‘the AI race’ based on the architecture of where voice assistants started compared to today’s chatbots is a bit facile. Voice assistants may be primitive by comparison to chatbots, but it’s far too early to count Apple, Google, or Amazon out or declare the race over, for that matter.

“Siri” and “Alexa” are just marketing names. The underlying technologies can change. It is naïve to think Google is not working to integrate something like the Bard system into its Assistant. I have no idea if any of these companies will be able to iterate as quickly as OpenAI has been doing — I have been wrong about this before — but to count them out now, mere months after ChatGPT’s launch, is ridiculous, especially as Siri, alone, is in a billion pockets.