Apple is buying VocalIQ, a British startup that builds artificial intelligence software, the Financial Times reports.
Apple confirmed the news with its boilerplate response: "Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans."
VocalIQ's software helps people speak to their computers using natural-sounding dialogue — kind of like how Tony Stark from Marvel's "Iron Man" movies naturally talks to his artificial intelligence assistant Jarvis: in full, fluid conversations.
If applied to Siri, Apple's own voice-based assistant, it could show vast improvements in the user experience. For example, Siri cannot hold real conversations, or even remember the last question you asked it. Siri answers each query separately — and though its answers can be quite clever at times, it's not a true assistant that can remember (or even reference) previous conversations.
VocalIQ's machine learning technology, on the other hand, can understand context and can actually improve its own language recognition over time.
When a person speaks to a VocalIQ-powered app, the system securely logs the dialogue — for both analysis and training purposes — but it can also recognize when it doesn't understand something, and ask the user for further clarification. Once the dialogue is complete, VocalIQ's system can analyze and document the conversation, modifying its own models of understanding in the process. In other words, it becomes smarter and more specific to your needs over time. A learning AI, if you will.
Ron Kaplan, who leads the natural language artificial intelligence lab at Nuance (the speech software company that initially helped Apple power Siri), told Tech Insider that one of the biggest issues with today's AI assistants is that they don't know when they don't know something. And if the AI assistant returns a wrong answer, or if it didn't understand your question, you have to essentially start all over again. That's not how humans communicate, Kaplan argues.
"The interface and the personal assistant needs the awareness to know when it’s confident that it understands — and the opposite of that, getting clear when it's maybe misunderstanding, so it knows when to ask and confirm those cases. That’s an important part in conversation,"Kaplan told Tech Insider. "And you as the human also notices when things are going off track, and you need to be able to interject so you don't have to start the conversation all over again. You need to have a conversation about the conversation, because that’s what people do."
Siri is extremely important to Apple, as the "voice" of all its current and future products. It's at the heart of the new Apple TV, for instance.
But Siri doesn't need to achieve "perfection," in the sense that it will always understand what you're saying and always return the right answers. Just like any human conversation, misunderstandings can and will happen: It's how Siri deals with those misunderstandings — to clarify the intent, and to repair the issue — that could make it a real game-changer.
"This notion of repair, recognizing when things go off track on either side, is going to be important. To be really natural and feel really conversational, [an AI assistant] needs to recognize that conversations are never going to be perfect. I understand 80 percent of what my wife says to me, but if I get something wrong — I don't take out the garbage, I empty the dishwasher instead — it gets corrected, quickly. That's where these things are headed."