VocalIQ is Apple’s Key to Keeping Siri Relevant

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are getting closer to the goal of complex natural spoken language interaction with computers while Apple’s Siri seems to be lagging behind. But Apple may be in a position to leapfrog its competitors thanks to last year’s VocalIQ purchase. That’s assuming Apple can pull this off without without invading our privacy to mine personal data.

VocalIQ could boost Siri to Star Trek-like computer interaction

Apple bought London-based VocalIQ last year and tasked the company’s engineers with rolling their natural spoken language technology into Siri. VocalIQ’s technology understands the way we normally speak without forcing us to bark out stilted individual commands awkwardly phrased so our device’s artificial intelligence (AI) can parse out their meaning, and it can reply like a human would with natural sounding complete sentences.

Saying, “Hey Siri, is there a Starbucks near by,” and getting a list of locations you need to tap, driving to the store, and then saying, “Hey Siri, I need directions to Dave’s house,” is how we interact with Apple’s voice control system today. Once VocalIQ is a real part of Siri, we can say, “Hey Siri, I want to drive to Dave’s house and stop at Starbucks on the way.”

VocalIQ learns over time and remembers context, which will make interacting with Siri even more human-like. Imagine starting the drive to Starbucks and then Dave’s house and saying, “Hey Siri, actually, I’m hungry and want lunch instead. Is there a Wahoo’s on the way?”

VocalIQ’s one-two punch of understanding natural conversational language and complex statements is a pretty powerful combination. Adding in its ability to remember context and learn from its interactions makes it a serious competitor to Google’s Now, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. 

When I wrote about the VocalIQ purchase last October, I compared the company’s technology to Apple’s Knowledge Navigator concept from the late 1980s. I also said it could be a useful element in Apple’s electric car interface, which was a market VocalIQ was pursuing before Apple bought it up.

According to Tech Insider, VocalIQ can also filter out background noise like conversations and television noise—a huge benefit in cars, but also really handy if Apple does make its rumored Siri-based Amazon Echo competitor.

Reports say Apple is working on such a device, and it may be rolled into a new Apple TV model. If so, distinguishing between dialog on TV and user’s spoken commands will be critical; Apple doesn’t want to deal with the same ridicule Microsoft faced when its Xbox launched games after hearing key words in commercials.

Assuming Apple can pull this off, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft will have to step up their AI efforts even more—but that’s a big if. Siri currently feels hobbled in comparison in part because Apple doesn’t mine our personal data. Sifting through our messages and Web history gives Google a huge advantage, but at the expense of our privacy.

Apple, in contrast, isn’t interested in mining our data and designed its services to limit how much personal information it can collect. Assuming the company can figure out how to take advantage of VocalIQ’s technology without exposing more of our personal data, it’ll have a big advantage.

Even if Apple only manages to get Siri to understand complex commands and filter out background noise, it may still be enough to keep the company in the AI game—at least for now. If VocalIQ is too invasive, Apple won’t likely bring all of its features to market, but the fact that Siri is a system-level feature on the iPhone and iPad gives it a leg up over competing systems users need to install. Safari is the default Web browser on the Mac and iOS because it’s already there, and Apple Music has an advantage because it’s pre-installed on iOS and built into iTunes on the desktop.

Pre-installed trumps better features for the average user, and that could be enough to keep current customers from jumping ship. In the long term, however, Apple needs to find a way to go head-to-head with Google Now and Amazon Echo to stay competitive. Pre-installed features become the default because they’re there, but iPhone users could eventually get Google Now-envy and jump ship for Android.

Still, if Apple pulls this off, we may soon reach a point whereCaptain Picard saying, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot,” feels antiquated and we’ll wonder why he isn’t saying, “Hey computer, make my usual tea.”