WWDC: Apple wants customers to talk like people, not robots

At its WWDC keynote, Apple hyped 'natural language' features that will let people ask Siri questions and search their devices in full sentences, rather than in keyword phrases.

Jeff Chiu/AP
Craig Federighi, Apple senior vice president of software engineering, speaks at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco.

For years, Google, Yahoo, and Bing have nudged people to talk like robots. Studies show that the most effective search-engine queries trim out as many words as possible. If you want to learn about world politics, don't search for "define Argentine and British international relations." The best results come from typing in just "Britain Argentina." 

Apple is trying to reverse this trend of computer-speak by injecting more casual conversation into its software. At its annual Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, Apple introduced several new apps and features designed with "natural language" in mind.

Apple senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi kicked off the show with a demonstration of the new Mac update, OS X El Capitan. The computer software lets people search for files and photos in the same way they would talk to a person. Mr. Federighi used Spotlight, the Mac's system-wide search tool, to say, "Get Mail from Brian about El Cap." The computer knew that "get mail" referred to his e-mail account, figured out that "Brian" was a person, and deduced that "El Cap" was short for "El Capitan."

These conversational touches carried over to the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch, as well. For example:

  • Showing off the upcoming iOS 9, Federighi asked Siri, Apple's digital assistant, to "Show me photos from Utah last August.” Later in the show, he said, "Show me karaoke photos of Eddy."
  • While reading an article online, you can tell Siri, "Remind me about this later today." The software will know that "this" refers to whatever is open at the moment.
  • You can jump-start an exercise routine by saying, "Hey, Siri, start a 30-minute workout" or "Start a 300-calorie bike ride."
  • If an Apple device is tapped into smart-home appliances, such as Internet-connected security equipment or light bulbs, you can trigger certain commands vocally. On stage, they tried, "Hey, Siri, set the dinner scene," which presumably would lower or change the color of smart lights in the dining room. These settings will likely need to be spelled out ahead of time.
  • Siri can also play DJ, even with songs not on your device, thanks to the new Apple Music service. On stage, senior vice president of Internet software and services Eddy Cue, requested, "Play the top song from May, 1982," which queued up Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll."

Designing this kind of software isn't easy. For "natural language" commands to work, Apple needs to not only nail vocal recognition, but also map out the dozens, if not hundreds, of different ways that humans talk. Even within a single language, phrases and idioms can vary widely. Google has had a leg-up in this regard. When people type queries into its search engine, the company can monitor what people click on and whether they refine the search terms along the way. With years of data about what people ultimately clicked on, Google can go back and track the numerous ways that different people request the same thing. It's unclear whether Apple has tapped into a similar vein of data, or whether the company hired people to brainstorm and teach Siri as many different commands as they could.

Either way, Federighi told the WWDC crowd that Siri has refined its listening skills over the past year. In iOS 9, he says, Siri responds 40 percent faster than in iOS 8. And its word-error rate is down to 5 percent, 40 percent lower than the current software.

Of course, with 1 billion Siri requests logged each week, a 5-percent error rate leaves room for plenty of mistakes. Even at Apple's highly polished keynote, Siri goofed up. During the demo of Apple Music, Mr. Cue asked Siri to "Play the song from 'Selma.' " The software instead loaded up "Selene" by Imagine Dragons. Cue needed to ask a second time before it played the Academy Award-winning song from the film "Selma."

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