If you’ve used Apple’s digital assistant Siri, you probably know that it has specific strengths and weaknesses, including annoyances that have stopped some people from using the feature. Instead of a top-to-bottom refresh of the service, Apple has spent nearly a decade making small improvements to various features, and now another one’s coming: The company has acquired an Irish voice AI company called Voysis to help fix one of Siri’s most glaring issues.
While Siri has scored pretty well on Loup Ventures’ annual Digital Assistant IQ test, a relatively young but impressively broad canvassing of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft AI assistants, the nine-year-old service has continued to lag behind both Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa in the key category of “commerce.” Assistant answered 92% of commerce-related inquiries properly, but Siri achieved only 68% accuracy on this metric, its worst performance in any measured category.
Apple hasn’t confirmed its purchase price for Voysis, but the deal is akin to buying Siri an expensive private retailing tutor, if not a brain implant. Assuming Voysis’s technology is properly integrated into Siri, Apple devices could quickly become more conversational, particularly when facilitating ecommerce transactions, rather than simply providing basic responses.
Voysis built a business on facilitating “rich, natural language interactions between  brands and users,” developing conversational interfaces that could run directly on mobile devices — while consuming as little as 25 megabytes of space — rather than requiring a persistent connection to cloud servers. By training its AI using company-specific data, ranging from names to categories and descriptions, Voysis enabled a higher degree of accuracy at recognizing company-specific product or service details spoken by users. Another part of its technology used Google-developed WaveNets to create realistically human sounding synthetic voices, so spoken responses based on each company’s proper nouns could sound natural.
Signaling its value to major brands, the Voysis site — now offline — showed its platform being used for voice recognition by Nike, enabling highly specific commerce requests such as “show me running sneakers,” “only show me Air Max,” and “add these in size 11 to my cart,” as well as category-specific requests for blue-colored shirts for running, using Dri-Fit material, and in a hoodie style. Critically, requests could be discrete and all at once, or processed as refinements to an initial query, addressing another major weakness that Siri has had with follow-up requests.
It’s unclear how deep Voysis’s integration with Siri will go, but leveraging AI to improve the assistant has been a push for the company since it hired Google’s AI chief John Giannandrea in 2018. At a minimum, developers of third-party apps with Siri features will likely see deeper OS-level understanding of key terminology, but it’s highly likely that Apple will use Voysis tech to make Siri smarter and more nimble across the board. Siri improvements traditionally lag roughly a year behind acquisitions, making 2021 the earliest users should expect to benefit from the deal.