Tag Archives: Siri

Machine Learning’s contribution to Siri’s voice

The Siri team has a great post about the evolution of Siri’s speech synthesis on the Apple Machine Learning Journal:

Siri is a personal assistant that communicates using speech synthesis. Starting in iOS 10 and continuing with new features in iOS 11, we base Siri voices on deep learning. The resulting voices are more natural, smoother, and allow Siri’s personality to shine through. This article presents more details about the deep learning based technology behind Siri’s voice.

Just scroll down to the bottom and listen to the progression between iOS 9, 10, and 11. It’s really impressive.

I’m surprised more beta users have not said more about this over the duration of the public betas. Until this post by Apple I’ve not seen it mentioned even once. Personally I will say that I consider it a fantastic improvement and thought it was one of the highlights of the WWDC Keynote. When I installed the public beta on my iPad the second first thing I did was invoke Siri so I could hear her new voice. So much better!

It’s 2017, we use many computers

My Color Classic and iPad Pro as imaged by an iPhone 7+.

My Color Classic and iPad Pro as imaged by an iPhone 7+.

So techie and web publisher Joshua Topolsky recently went on a very emotional, not too rational, Twitter tirade regarding the iPad Pro. Just a tiny example:

Couple of tweets about the new iPad and iOS 11. It is inferior toa laptop in almost every way, unless you like to draw.

If you think you can replace you laptop with this setup: youcannot. Imagine a computer, but everything works worse thanyou expect. […]

But this doesn’t COME CLOSE to replacing your laptop, even forsimple things you do, like email. AND one other thing. Apple’skeyboard cover is a fucking atrocity. A terrible piece ofhardware. Awkward to use, poor as a cover. Okay in a pinch if youneed something LIKE a keyboard.

This whole “can an iPad replace your laptop” discussion is really silly. We live in a world of many devices that come in many forms. They are complimentary. Back in 1993 I bought my first computer, a Mac Color Classic. That was my only computer until 1997. It was a desktop. I used it for school and for email. In 1998 I wanted a computer that would run Netscape. That’s right, my $2,500 desktop would not even run a web browser. So I purchased a Mac Performa 6400! That’s the machine I used to build my first website. And then another and another. It’s also the machine I used to begin dabbling in “desktop publishing”. Then a Lime iMac a couple years later. Then 1st gen blue iBook. And so on. But at any given time I owned and used one computer. Then the iPod came in 2001 and now I had another computer though I didn’t think of it as a computer. At some point around 2005 I found myself with both a laptop (PowerBook 12″) and a desktop (iMac G5) and I wasn’t very clear at the time which one I wanted to use on any given day. I could share files between them but it was an awkward sort of back and forth. I also used a video camera and a still camera and a cheap mobile phone. Lots of wires for charging and transferring data.

Skip forward to 2010 and I was using a Mac Mini for a media player, a 2009 MacBook Pro for my work, and a 1st gen iPad for email and web browsing. No iPhone yet, just a cheap mobile. Also, separate still and video cameras. Transfer between devices still awkward. Each device with a pretty well defined purpose.

It’s now 2017 and my workflow has completely changed. I am surrounded by devices that communicate with one another flawlessly. Sometimes locally, other times via iCloud or Dropbox. The iPhone replaced the iPod, mobile phone as well as the still and video cameras. A newer Mac Mini serves primarily as a media server but also now does duty an occasional work machine for InDesign projects. I watch movies and listen to music via an AppleTV. I also watch movies and listen to music via the iPad and iPhone. I have wireless AirPods that switch between all of my devices with just a single tap or click. I have Smart plugs that I control via Siri and the network to turn devices on or off. By this time next year I expect to have a HomePod which will be yet another computer in this ecosystem.

Another aspect of this is the fundamental truth that most of what we do on a daily basis relies on the internet, on countless computers around the globe. The music I’m streaming through my iPhone to my AirPods comes from an Apple server I don’t really think about. Same for my email. Same for the web page I’m browsing. The screen in front of me might be the most intimate, the most directly interacted with, but it is just one of countless computers I rely on in the interconnected reality of 2017.

In 1993 I used my “desktop” Mac to do a very tiny number of jobs. But in form factor it was indeed a desktop computer. With each new iteration my computer changed in form factor, flexibility, power, and, as a result, the number of jobs I could do with it expanded. My first Mac did not include a modem, the second had both a modem and Ethernet. The third was the first to include wireless network access. But none of them could be an everyday still or video camera, that wouldn’t come till later.

By comparison, my iPad today seems limitless in power. It is a lightweight, impossibly thin computer that can be used in too many ways for me to count. I can input data with my finger, a keyboard, a stylus, or my voice. I can hold it with a keyboard or without. I can lay flat on my back and use it in bed. I can use it while walking. I can speak to it to request a weather forecast or to control devices in my home. In the near future I’ll be able to point it at a window or object in my environment to use the camera to get a precise measurement of the dimensions of the object. The same might be said of the iPhone.

We’ve reached a point where it’s probably best to just acknowledge that incredibly powerful computers now come in a variety of forms and that they perform a limitless list of jobs for us and that which tool we use at any given moment is likely to become a less interesting topic. Just use what works best for you in any given situation. There’s really no reason to draw lines in the sand, no reason to argue. Such arguments will become less interesting as time goes on.

A few others have been making similar points. My favorite was by Matt Gemmell. If you’re interested in this sort of thing his whole post is worth a read.

There’s no such thing as a laptop replacement, and if there were, the iPad isn’t meant to be one.

The term usually crops up in the context of the iPad not being whatever it is the author is looking for… and no wonder. The phrase itself is strange, like you’re consciously considering replacing your laptop (implicitly with something else, otherwise you’d just upgrade to a newer laptop, surely), are assessing the iPad as a candidate, and you find that it is indeed an entirely different thing… but that’s somehow a deal breaker. So you want to potentially not use a laptop anymore, but you also want a computer that does all the same things as a laptop, in pretty much the same way. In which case, I think the computer you’re looking for is a laptop.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball:

But people like me and Topolsky — and millions of others — are the reason why Apple continues to work on MacOS and make new MacBook hardware. I can say without hesitation that the iPad Pro is not the work device for me. I can also say without hesitation that the iPad Pro with a Smart Keyboard is the work device for millions of other people.

A MacBook is better in some ways; an iPad is better in others. For some of us, our personal preferences fall strongly in one direction or the other. “Imagine a computer, but everything works worse than you expect” is no more fair as criticism of the iPad than a statement like “Imagine an iPad but everything is more complicated and there’s always a jumble of dozens of overlapping windows cluttering the screen” would be as criticism of the Mac.

Rene Ritchie, writing for iMore, Giving iPad fire to mere mortals: On myopia and elitism in computing:

For a long time computing only addressed the needs of a very few. Now, thanks to iPad and products that have followed its lead, computing is open to almost everyone with almost any need. It’s nothing short of a revolution.

People who were, for their whole lives, made to feel stupid and excluded by older computing technology and some of its advocates now have something that’s approachable, accessible, and empowering. From toddlers to nonagenarians to every age in between, and for every profession imaginable.

What Apple and iPad have done to bring computing to the mainstream is not only laudable, it’s critical. And it’s nothing short of amazing.

And, not a response but a great post by Fraser Speirs from nearly two years ago is worth a read as it turns the whole argument about the iPad being a laptop replacement on it’s head:

There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about the MacBook Pro and, in particular, whether it can replace an iPad Pro for getting real work done.

Firstly, consider the hardware. The huge issue with the MacBook Pro is its form factor. The fact that the keyboard and screen are limited to being held in an L-shaped configuration seriously limits its flexibility. It is basically impossible to use a MacBook pro while standing up and downright dangerous to use when walking around. Your computing is limited to times when you are able to find somewhere to sit down.

Pre-WWDC Apple Nerdery

Wow. So much going on in the run-up to WWDC. As most have said, it looks to be a big one with likely hardware announcements. Apple seems to be releasing bits of news this week that would normally have been in the keynote prompting many to suggest that they are making way for a jam-packed presentation.

I’m not an educator but if I were I’d be very excited about what Apple is doing with Swift Playgrounds. The next update, due Monday, expands coding education to robots, drones and musical instruments :

Apple is working with leading device makers to make it easy to connect to Bluetooth-enabled robots within the Swift Playgrounds app, allowing kids to program and control popular devices, including LEGO MINDSTORMS Education EV3, the Sphero SPRK+, Parrot drones and more.

That’s going to be a lot of fun. On the topic of Swift, Fraser Speirs has an excellent post about teaching Swift over the past year.

I’m looking forward to new iPads being announced and hopefully the long rumored and hoped for “Siri Speaker”. And of course all of us iPad nerds are hoping for big iPad features with iOS 11. We never know until Apple announces it but I have a feeling (as do many others) that we’re going to see some great stuff Monday!

Setting up HomeKit for the first time

I've been wanting to try out a HomeKit device for quite awhile now. A friend that uses Alexa first set up a couple of lights well over a year ago and ever since his first demonstration I've been eager to try it out in my tiny house. But I'm stubborn and so I was waiting for a light or plug to drop down to a price I was willing to pay. A few months ago I'd taken note of the Koogeek plugs at Amazon. At about $35 per plug they were about the least expensive HomeKit plug but still I decided to hold out for a sale. Last week I noticed an Amazon deal via 9to5Mac that, with a code, dropped the price down to just under $24 per plug so I bought two of them.

Setting up the lights

They arrived today and I had them set-up in just a few minutes thanks to a very simple process. I installed the Koogeek app and was prompted to set-up an account which I did. Next I was prompted to use the iPad's camera to scan a unique number code that comes with each plug. Upon detection the plug went through an auto set-up and then I was prompted to name it. Done. Each plug took less that a minute. I opened Control Center and sure enough I now had a third panel to the far right where each plug now resided as a button I could select. I touched one and the light popped on. I'm pretty sure I giggled. I touched the other and it lit up. I felt like a wizard. But when I tried to use Siri on my phone it didn't work as it found no devices. Doh. My fault. I was not on my wifi network. I rarely put the iPhone on the wifi as I have limited satellite bandwidth. How to use Siri via my LTE connection? A second later I remembered that I also needed to set-up my AppleTV to serve as a HomeKit Hub. This would allow me to access the plugs via the internet from home or anywhere else. The next question: how to set-up the AppleTV? This was a little less obvious.

Setting up the AppleTV as a hub

I opened the Home app on the iPad and saw no indicator of how to do this. I hopped over to the AppleTV and poked around settings. Didn't see any mention of using the AppleTV as a Home Hub. Did I need an app? Hmm. I asked Siri knowing she'd likely send me to a web search which she did. Two clicks later and I had my answer. I needed to sign into my primary iCloud account on the AppleTV in the accounts section of the Settings app. Duh. Of course it would all go through iCloud. I did that and that was it. Finished. I called to Siri from across the room and requested that one of the lights be turned off. Poof. Neat. I can now control the plugs from anywhere I have internet assuming my cabin internet is connected which it usually is. Sometimes I really do feel like I'm living in an episode of Star Trek.

From Pandora to Apple Music

This isn’t a review so much as a few notes comparing Pandora and Apple Music. In the past my music was artist based. I’d load up an iPod with several gigs of my favorite music and go. I didn’t bother much with playlists as I would just listen to albums. With the iPhone storage was at a premium and I started keeping far less music on the device. Usually just a handful but still it was album based listening with maybe a couple of playlists. I avoided streaming music due to data limitations until Sprint started offering an unlimited plan at which point I began streaming Pandora. I initially went with Pandora because I’d read that the data rate was a bit lower and even though I have an “unlimited” plan my understanding is that it’s actually something more like 23 GB per month which is still quite a bit. After three months I seem to only been using 15 gigs a month with about 3 gigs of that being Pandora. The idea was to evaluate the selection offered by Pandora and to keep an eye on the data usage.

In three months I’ve come to realize that I enjoy that I do not need to think about the specific artists. I just pick a genre or an artist-based playlist and listen. It was more like radio but without the commercials or playlists but without the effort of creating them. Very nice. But there are a couple things I don’t like: too much repetition of songs and lack of Siri integration. So, I thought it time to give Apple Music another go. I want to track the data usage as well as the selection and the benefits of Siri integration. I only just activated my account today so I haven’t used it enough to comment on data usage or variety though I’ve read that the library is MUCH larger than Pandora’s and at twice the cost I fully expect a better selection! In addition to the music there are several live streaming news stations such as. PRI, NPR and a few others. Excellent.

Siri works great with Apple Music and with the AirPods the experience is really fantastic. Not knowing what to expect I asked Siri: “Play some light ambient music” and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact I got exactly what I wanted and I was surprised because I don’t know that it is a predefined category or genre, it’s just want I wanted. Next I asked for Americana. Again, I got what I asked for though I expected it because I think it is a pretty clear genre. I’ve also asked for acid jazz and avant-garde jazz both of which produced great results. I didn’t have to think about an artist. Next I asked for ambient dream pop and again, not disappointed. It’s just been a day and just a few hours of listening but thus far I’d say this is exactly what I was hoping for. At one point I even forgot to preface the request with “Play some” and just said “Irish folk music” and it worked.

What about asking Siri for specific artists? I asked for Sigur Ros and got a nice mix from a variety of the band’s albums. I asked for “Lisa Hannigan’s most recent album” and I got it. I suspect that this will work well for any artist in the catalog.

With Siri I have full control and can repeat songs, jump to the next, shuffle and, of course, pause and play. After nearly a month with the AirPods I’ve got the double-tap force just right and have had almost no errors activating Siri. Much of my use of Music is while walking and having full control while leaving the phone in my pocket is amazing and is exactly what I was hoping for with a switch to Apple Music.

So, what’s the downside? I don’t mind the extra $5/month. I’ll have to monitor the data. In one day of streaming I used 500mb which is a good bit more than Pandora. I expected it would be more. I did do a bit more walking than normal but not much more. Will wait and see. That comes out to 15GB/ month just for music streaming. I should be alright. With other data usage that will end up being about 22-25GB/month which puts me near the upper limit of what Sprint considers normal for an Unlimited plan according to what I’ve read here.

The AirPods: Siri Everywhere!

Much has been made over the past year about Amazon's Alexa and Google's equivalent which are both available in different forms on different devices. In that process many have taken the opportunity to criticize Apple's Siri, many suggesting that Apple has fallen behind. I've written before about my fondness for Siri and the many ways I've found "her" useful over the past couple years. Perhaps the two things that the Echo has become most noted for are excellent accuracy in understanding dictation and the ever growing list of available skills. I've no first hand experience so I can't say much other than to acknowledge that yes indeed the list of "skills" is quite large and seemingly growing all the time. That said, at this moment, the Echo is also very limited in terms of availability in other countries. It's also generally mostly useful in the home.

I'll agree that my iPad and iPhone have not been perfectly accurate when I use Siri. I think I'd peg the accuracy at about 70% or a wee bit above that. It has worked well enough that I've continued to use it fairly often and have been generally happy with the results. With the new AirPods I'm seeing this greatly improved. Not only that, I am also finding that the AirPods are comfortable enough that they disappear into the background. Which is to say that while I'm aware that I have them in my ears I'm not distracted by them and so I tend to wear them far longer than any other headphone I've owned. In fact I'm leaving them in for much of the day with the exception of charging times.

I'm beginning to think of the AirPods as a persistent extension of Siri and I'd guess that Apple hopes this is the case for many who purchase the AirPods. I can certainly say that when I purchased them much of my interest was directly related to using Siri. Sure, I listen to music and podcasts daily and these are fine for both. But what I really wanted was an always present Siri that would more accurately understand my requests and do so more quickly than with my other bluetooth headphones or interaction with the phone directly. I've not been disappointed.

15 years ago I was that nerd that used "Speakable Items" on the Mac. It didn't work very well for me. But I tried. I've no doubt that more than one of my roommates at the time face palmed as they walked by my room as I alternated between patient talking and near shouting as I tried to interact with my Mac by voice. Well, here we are. It's 2017 and this is not yet the intelligent, ever present computer from Star Trek nor is it the AI found in the movie Her but the AirPods with Siri are a step in the right direction.

Until I had the AirPods I'd been hoping for a stationary device like the Echo but no longer. Assuming I have the AirPods in my ear and my iPhone within 60 feet I can, in all likelihood, make a request of Siri that will be successfully answered. In many ways this feels like the best of both worlds: the Echo/Google Home living room device and the mobile Siri model of Apple. When I'm at home I have the freedom to roam with or without the iPhone and still have Siri. When I get out for a walk or errands in town I take the iPhone and continue to have Siri.

Siri is far from perfect and there is much room for improvement mainly in that I'd like an expansion of what "she" can do for me. I don't doubt that Apple is working on this and that we will see a constant expansion of the things that the OS and third party apps can do. The AirPods and Siri feel like the future. Like the iPhone and iPad, they are the tech of science fiction being born into the present.

How I use Siri

According to Caitlin McGarry, a writer over at Macworld, Siri is seriously behind:

Google previewed its new voice assistant, the generically named Google Assistant, at its I/O developers conference on Wednesday, and while the assistant hasn’t actually launched yet, its features made Siri’s lack of functionality all the more obvious. Apple’s iOS assistant now lags so far behind not only Google, but Amazon’s Alexa, intelligent iOS apps like Hound, and new technology from Siri’s creators, that it’s unclear if Apple has any interest in catching up.

Siri usually reverts to a web search for questions it doesn’t know the answers to, and now I’ve come to expect that if I want anything more than a timer set or the weather forecast, I’ll have to look it up myself.

That’s silly. Linkbait. And here I am linking to it. I’ve not seen what Google previewed in a currently unavailable application but to jump to the conclusion that Siri is suddenly so far behind that Apple’s plans to keep it up-to-date are now in question. Seriously? Where do I wash this muck off.

And the suggestion that Siri is mostly just good for setting timers or getting the forcast only tells me that either Caitlin does not know how to use Siri or that she’s being intentionally dishonest.

I’ll agree that Siri could be better. Of course it could. That can be said about any of the other virtual assistant services currently available. No doubt Amazon has done a fantastic job with Alexa and has moved the bar. But to paint Siri as this useless, abandoned technology is just ridiculous.

As someone who actually uses Siri on a regular basis let me share just a small sampling of my requests. Yes, timers and alarms and the weather. And really, those are quite useful. But as an avid amateur astronomer I also routinely seek out quick facts. When I’m at the telescope I’m using my favorite astronomy app, Sky Safari, which has much of what I need. But there are times when I’m out for a walk and thinking about some aspect of astronomy. I have on occasion put together Keynote presentations for the local library and might be mulling over a few topics or possible content. For example: What is the largest moon of Jupiter? Siri comes back with an answer via Wolfram Alpha (Ganymede). Another: What is the distance to Pluto? Yup, again via Wolfram Alpha (32.41 astronomical units in case your curious). It gets better and better. Siri, when was the Mars Curiosity Rover launched into space? Yup, another answer from Wolfram Alpha:

img_5171.jpgIf I need the time that a planet is going to rise above the horizon because I’ve got friends coming over to spend some time at the telescope? Yup. I can get the time via Wolfram Alpha right in Siri’s search results. Now, to be sure, some questions do bring up web searches, usually with Wikipedia right at the top which is almost always what I want.

But I’m interested in more than astronomy. I have a keen interest in local flora and fauna. That flower over there that I think might be a gray headed coneflower? Or that bird that might be an indigo bunting? I can ask Siri for images and I have them presented right in the results.

Podcasts or music while I’m out for a walk? I can ask for a specific episode of a specific podcast or the most recent and it opens up nicely. I can have specific music played or a shuffle of everything.

What about local errands or day trips? If I’m interested in directions or the open hours of nearby businesses that usually works out. I’m in a small town in rural Missouri and with Yelp as the basis for these searches it can be hit and miss. If I ask “where is the nearest Trader Joes and is it open today?” I get the results with a map and Siri let’s me know the hours for today. I can tap the map for full directions. I’m not likely to drive that far but it’s possible I might drive into a closer town for Panera Bread. Again, I’m presented with the hours and a map which also indicates that they accept Apple Pay. If I ask about movies for that town I get a list of movies with nice movie art as well as times. If I click one I get more details, directions and an option to play the trailer. Maybe I decide to stay in and rent something on iTunes. A request brings up the information, artwork and option to rent or purchase. Maybe get some pizza? The phone number, map and hours all pop up.

I can do this all day long. Sports? I’m not into sports but I’ve played with it a bit just to see what Siri can produce. Excellent results. I grew up following baseball and that’s something I still follow a bit. If I’m curious about my favorite Cardinals player, Yadier Molina I can ask how he’s doing this year and I get a nice report:

img_5172.jpg

Recipes? Easy enough to find via a Siri web search. Of course, that goes for anything at all and I realize that while handy, initiating a web search is likely pretty low on the list of any voice assistant’s skills. I’m not going to suggest that Siri is perfect. If I ask her to make me lunch I get a simple no. If I ask her to water my garden, no again. But you see, those are obviously absurd requests of a virtual assistant. Actually, now that I think about it there might come a time when Siri could water my garden if and when HomeKit and the necessary components are made available but I don’t think that’s happened yet.

The takeaway here is that there is plenty that Siri can do and I suspect that Caitlin knows it. As a writer for Macworld I certainly hope she does. Anyone can activate Siri and ask “What can you do for me” and get a very helpful list that goes far beyond my examples. Sure, we all hope for more and no doubt more is coming. But for now I’ll happily go on using Siri in the ways that I know I can. I’ll even continue learning new ways to use “her” as I try new requests some of which will fail but many of which will helpfully provide information or complete a task I need help with. For that I’ll be grateful to Apple and it’s engineers.