Thursday, April 19, 2018

Siri isn’t dumb, she’s less consistent

Everyone loves to hate on Siri. The common trope equates to her being dumb or not up to par with the other voice assistants (largely being Alexa and Google Voice Assistant). I believe this perception largely comes from Siri’s greatest opportunity for improvement: general knowledge. 1

Table Stakes

Let’s first address the table stakes among digital assistants — weather, sports, news, smart home functions, etc. I feel they all do these jobs equally well, with little differences.

For example: let’s say my living room Lurton Caséta dimmer is at 5%, but I want to raise it to 100%. If I tell Alexa to “turn on the living room lights”, Alexa is smart enough to interpret my intent as a human would and just raise the lights. A human might have more snark at first. Siri, on the other hand, does not understand my intent. If I issue the same command to her, she does nothing because the lights are already on. As if a child, she might as well be saying “the lights are already on, duh”. I must specifically ask Siri to “set the lights to 100%” or some variation.

It’s a little annoyance, and although I prefer Alexa’s handling of the situation, there is still feature parity here.

General Knowledge

By contrast, I feel this is the main area in which Siri lacks consistent feature parity with the others. Even in my own circle of friends and family, the questions that fail the most fall into this category. These are usually questions I would never ask Siri myself, since I know she can’t answer them accurately (if at all). Here are just a few examples, comparing Siri and Alexa.

Are tomatoes a fruit?

  • Siri: Wolfram Alpha results with no direct answer to the question.
  • Alexa: “Yes, a tomato is a fruit.”

What is the largest freshwater lake in the world?

  • Siri: “Here’s what I found on the web.”
  • Alexa: “The largest freshwater lake by area is Lake Superior, at 31,795.5 square miles.”

What time is Brooklyn Nine-Nine on?

  • Siri: “Sorry, I couldn’t find anything called ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ playing nearby.”
  • Alexa: “Season five of Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs on Fox Tuesdays at 9:30pm Eastern and 8:30pm Central.”

Now, I will say that Siri answered most of my general knowledge questions correctly (about 70% of them) as I was looking for the above examples. However, every time Siri doesn’t answer correctly or in an unexpected way, trust in the service takes another hit.

Siri’s negative perception will continue to increase until Apple addresses this area and others (hopefully in some capacity at this year’s WWDC). This isn’t Siri’s only problem, but I think it’s the biggest one. Severely reducing dumps to web searches (like above) is another one. As Siri and voice input are increasingly positioned at the forefront of new computing methods, the last thing Apple needs is to be thought of as behind. Does this all make Siri dumb? No. It makes her less consistent.


  1. General Knowledge. /salute 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Apple explains how Personalized Hey Siri works →

Apple’s latest entry into their Machine Learning Journal details how they personalized the Hey Siri trigger phrase for engaging the personal assistant. Here are a few interesting tidbits.

[…] Unintended activations occur in three scenarios – 1) when the primary user says a similar phrase, 2) when other users say “Hey Siri,” and 3) when other users say a similar phrase. The last one is the most annoying false activation of all. In an effort to reduce such False Accepts (FA), our work aims to personalize each device such that it (for the most part) only wakes up when the primary user says “Hey Siri.” […]

I love the candidness of the writers here. I can also relate to the primary scenario. Let’s just say I’ve learned how often I say the phrase “Are you serious?”, because about 75% of the time I do, Siri thinks I’m trying to activate her. It’s fairly annoying on multiple levels.

On Siri enrollment and learning:

[…] During explicit enrollment, a user is asked to say the target trigger phrase a few times, and the on-device speaker recognition system trains a PHS speaker profile from these utterances. This ensures that every user has a faithfully-trained PHS profile before he or she begins using the “Hey Siri” feature; thus immediately reducing IA rates. However, the recordings typically obtained during the explicit enrollment often contain very little environmental variability. […]

And:

This brings to bear the notion of implicit enrollment, in which a speaker profile is created over a period of time using the utterances spoken by the primary user. Because these recordings are made in real-world situations, they have the potential to improve the robustness of our speaker profile. The danger, however, lies in the handling of imposter accepts and false alarms; if enough of these get included early on, the resulting profile will be corrupted and not faithfully represent the primary users’ voice. The device might begin to falsely reject the primary user’s voice or falsely accept other imposters’ voices (or both!) and the feature will become useless.

Heh. Maybe this explains my “Are you serious?” problem.

They go on to explain improving speaker recognition, model training, and more. As with all of Apple’s Machine Learning Journal entries, this one is very technical in content, but these peeks behind the curtain are highly interesting to say the least.

One thing I didn’t see note of was how microphone quality and quantity improves recognition. For instance, Hey Siri works spookily-well on HomePod, with its seven microphones. However, I assume they aren’t using Personalized Hey Siri on HomePod, since it’s a communal device with multiple users, so the success rate may be implicitly higher already. Either way, I wish my iPhone would hear me just as well.

Nikola Tesla predicted the smartphone in 1926 →

I saw this through Daring Fireball and just had to share. Here’s the relevant bit of a Tesla interview with Collier’s magazine in 1926:

When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

We shall be able to witness and hear events — the inauguration of a President, the playing of a world series game, the havoc of an earthquake or the terror of a battle — just as though we were present.

When the wireless transmission of power is made commercial, transport and transmission will be revolutionized. Already motion pictures have been transmitted by wireless over a short distance. Later the distance will be illimitable, and by later I mean only a few years hence. Pictures are transmitted over wires — they were telegraphed successfully through the point system thirty years ago. When wireless transmission of power becomes general, these methods will be as crude as is the steam locomotive compared with the electric train.

The way in which visionaries like Tesla saw the future is just remarkable. Really makes you wonder which predictions made today will be accurate fifty or more years from now.

Amazon warehouse workers pee in bottles, are punished for being sick →

Shona Ghosh for Business Insider:

Rushed fulfilment workers, who run around Amazon’s warehouses “picking” products for delivery, have a “toilet bottle” system in place because the toilet is too far away, according to author James Bloodworth, who went undercover at a warehouse in Staffordshire, UK, for a book on low wages in Britain.

 Bloodworth told The Sun: “For those of us who worked on the top floor, the closest toilets were down four flights of stairs. People just peed in bottles because they lived in fear of being ­disciplined over ‘idle time’ and ­losing their jobs just because they needed the loo.”

And:

A survey of Amazon workers, released on Monday, found almost three-quarters of fulfilment centre staff are afraid of using the toilet in case they miss their targets.

On how workers are punished for being sick:

Another employee said she was ill while pregnant, and was still handed warning points.

And yet another said: “I turned up for my shift even though I felt like shit, managed 2 hours then I just could not do anymore. Told my supervisor and was signed off sick, I had a gastric bug (sickness and diarrhoea, very bad) saw my doc. Got a sick note with an explanation, but still got a strike.”

This is just despicable and unsanitary. How does Amazon attract talent with their increasingly bad working conditions?

Saturday, April 14, 2018

watchOS 4.3.1 suggests future support for third party watch faces →

Guilherme Rambo for 9to5Mac found some interesting code in watchOS 4.3.1 that hints at third party watch faces:

[…] A component of the NanoTimeKit framework, responsible for the watch faces, implements a developer tools server that’s probably designed to communicate with Xcode running on a Mac. One of its methods has a very interesting log message:

The log message in the image reads:

This is where the 3rd party face config bundle generation would happen

Not surprising that Apple may already have dormant support for this, but I’m wondering how they’d handle it. I think there are two schools of thought. On one hand, Apple Watch could use third party watch faces to spice things up a bit. It may even spur further interest in Apple Watch apps as a whole.

On the other hand, I’d say watch faces make up at least fifty percent of a watch’s brand. That’s any watch, not just a smart one. Apple is very careful and precise about any kind of customization with the potential to alter their branding. For instance, you can’t change the look of the home or lock screens on iOS. At most, you can change the wallpaper, and that’s it.

What I could see Apple doing is meeting us somewhere in the middle by opening up Apple Watch faces development to a small number of artists or institutions. In a sense, they’ve already done this with Nike and Hermès, the difference being those faces are only available with their associated unique hardware. I can see an extension of this kind of partnership to include accomplished artists, colleges, and the entertainment industry.

Imagine an official collegiate Apple Watch face, or maybe one by your favorite musical group. I know I’d buy a few. I would expect these faces to have equal functionality (complications what whatnot) as the stock ones.

I really don’t think Apple will let just anyone create a face for Apple Watch. It’s just too risky for their branding. If you’ve seen the some of the terrible third-party faces available for other smart watches, you wouldn’t want just anyone building Apple Watch faces either.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Chrome and Firefox will support a new standard for password-free logins →

Russel Brandom for The Verge:

Web browsers are building a new way for you to log in, announced today by the W3C and FIDO Alliance standards bodies. Called WebAuthn, the new open standard is currently supported in the latest version of Firefox, and will be supported in upcoming versions of Chrome and Edge slated for release in the next few months.

WebAuthn has been working its way toward W3C approval for nearly two years, but today marks the first major announcement of browser support. Apple has not commented on Safari support for WebAuthn, although the company is part of the working group that developed the standard.

Today’s announcement the latest step in a years-long effort to move users away from passwords and toward more secure login methods like biometrics and USB tokens. The system is already in place on major services like Google and Facebook, where you can log in using a Yubikey token built to the FIDO standard.

I’m beginning to hate passwords, even with password managers. I look forward to the day in which authentication works just like magic (securely, of course). This sounds like a good step.

Apple offers extended three year repair program for iPad Pro Smart Keyboards →

Jordan Kahn for 9to5Mac:

Apple has launched a new extended repair program for its Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro, allowing customers experiencing certain issues with the product to receive repairs or replacements from Apple for three years after the device is purchased. Apple informed its retail staff and authorized service providers of the new policy in an internal memo obtained by 9to5Mac (pictured below).

The program covers the Smart Keyboard for both the 9.7-inch (Early 2016) and 12.9-inch (Late 2015) iPad Pro models, and applies to keyboards experiencing certain Functional Issues, including: sticking/repeating keys, sensor issues, problems with the keyboard’s magnetic connector, connection issues, and unresponsive keys.

I’m glad to hear this warranted a real repair program. The Smart Keyboard is great, but I have experienced the unresponsive keys issue a few times. It’s usually resolved by reconnecting the keyboard, but it’s annoying and breaks my flow. I should take mine in.

How Google identifies who's talking →

From the Google Research Blog

People are remarkably good at focusing their attention on a particular person in a noisy environment, mentally “muting” all other voices and sounds. Known as the cocktail party effect, this capability comes natural to us humans. However, automatic speech separation — separating an audio signal into its individual speech sources — while a well-studied problem, remains a significant challenge for computers.

I hope Apple makes similar advances in this area. Identification by voice will open up so many possibilities.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Wired’s ‘4 Best Smartphones’ list omits iPhone X

Wired published a list of ‘The 4 Best Smartphones Money Can Buy In 2018’ earlier today, crowning Google Pixel 2 as ‘the best overall’, while ommitting iPhone X.

Jeffrey Van Camp for Wired:

There are a lot of good reasons people may choose iOS over Android, but right now Google’s Pixel 2 and larger Pixel 2 XL are our picks for best overall smartphone. Google has made it super easy to buy its flagship phones unlocked, and all Pixel phones get security and software updates direct like clockwork.

Well kudos to Google for doing what Apple has always done. I still wouldn’t go near a Pixel phone. Google is way too early of a hardware manufacturer to be trusted (privacy reasons aside).

Jeffrey on the exclusion of iPhone X:

While we love the spiffy iPhone X, let’s get down to brass tacks: the cheaper iPhone 8 (and iPhone 8 Plus) are virtually identical in the ways that count.

Define ‘ways that count’. If he means specific components, then yes, there are core similarities. However, there are also core differences in terms of components (i.e. TrueDepth camera system and edge-to-edge screen). These components result in the individual user experiences of both models being radically different. There are even key UI elements that are different. If Jeffrey is saying these aren’t ‘ways that count’, then he’s missing the big picture. iPhone X isn’t just the future, it feels like the future. iPhone 8 is likely the last iteration of a tried-and-true 11 year old design. Let’s not pretend its going to be sticking around forever like the headphone jack. 1

While I think iPhone X is for everyone, not everyone may be ready for iPhone X. But to omit it completely is folly. In truth, iPhone 8/8 Plus and iPhone X all deserve to be on this list.


  1. Jeffrey also groans at the lack of a headphone jack across both Pixel and iPhone. 

I am jealous of the new (PRODUCT)RED iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus →

From the Apple Newsroom:

Cupertino, California — Apple today announced iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus (PRODUCT)RED Special Edition, the new generation of iPhone in a stunning red finish. Both phones sport a beautiful glass enclosure, now in red, with a matching aluminum band and a sleek black front. The special edition (PRODUCT)RED iPhone will be available to order online in select countries and regions tomorrow and in stores beginning Friday, April 13.

Seems like Apple is on an “official” cycle with these (PRODUCT)RED iPhone special editions. This year, though, the cover glass is the way it should always have been (black, not white).

Red and grey are my favorite colors, so I would kill for an iPhone X in this scheme, but I’m sure the investment wouldn’t pay off (literally) for Apple. Red is a polarizing color enough. Lumped together with the general hesitation for iPhone X alone, 1 you probably wouldn’t have a winning combination.

No, us iPhone X users are left with a new (PRODUCT)RED leather folio case, instead. Looks nice. Too bad I hate cases.


  1. You know, lack of home button, price, ‘the unfamiliar’.