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Inside Siri's brain: The challenges of extending Apple's virtual assistant

Marco Tabini | April 9, 2013
Siri is one of the biggest features to hit iOS in recent years, and yet it remains severely limited in its capabilities. Alas, Apple--and third-party developers--must overcome many obstacles before voice interaction becomes a pervasive part of the mobile experience.

Still, it's fair to say that the company is quietly laying the groundwork for putting more and more Siri-like capabilities within the reach of every programmer, starting with Apple's ever-increasing investment in the back-end facilities that it needs to run Siri's complex infrastructure.

For example, dictation is now built into both of Apple's operating systems, though developers are not currently allowed to add their own specialized jargon to the vocabulary. Similarly, both OS X and iOS have recently acquired several programming interfaces that can be used to analyze the syntax of a text document, although they do not help much in the much harder task of interpreting its meaning. Finally, Apple's software has long been adept at speech synthesis; right now this capability is used primarily by system tools like VoiceOver and is off-limits to developers (at least on iOS), but it wouldn't take much work, from a technical perspective, to turn speech synthesis into a general-purpose tool that everyone could use.

Ultimately, the shift toward natural language interaction is all but inevitable, and the keyboard, while not likely to disappear anytime soon, is going to become less and less relevant. The switch to a voice-based interface is going to be a hard one, with plenty of obstacles along the way; still, I look forward to the day when I will finally be able to stop typing on my devices and start communicating with them.


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