How Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant lost the race for AI

On a rainy Tuesday in San Francisco, Apple executives took to the stage in a packed auditorium to unveil the fifth-generation iPhone. The phone, which looked identical to the previous version, had a new feature that the public quickly echoed: Siri, a virtual assistant.

Scott Forstall, then Apple’s chief software officer, pressed a button on the iPhone to summon Siri and shoved it with questions. At her request, Siri checked the time in Paris (“8:16 p.m.,” Siri replied), defined the word “mitosis” (“Cell division in which the nucleus divides into nuclei containing the same number of chromosomes,” he said) and compiled a list of 14 highly rated Greek restaurants, including five in Palo Alto, California.

“I’ve been in the AI ​​business for a long time, and it still blows my mind,” Forstall said.

It was 12 years ago. Since then, people have been far from blown away by Siri and competing AI-powered assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. The technology has remained largely stagnant, and talking assistants have become the butt of jokes, most notably in a 2018 “Saturday Night Live” skit featuring a smart speaker for the elderly.

The tech world is now springing up with another kind of virtual assistant: chatbots. These AI-powered bots, such as ChatGPT and San Francisco-based OpenAI’s new ChatGPT Plus, can improvise answers to questions typed into a chat box eagerly. People have used ChatGPT to handle complex tasks like software coding, writing business proposals, and writing fiction.

And ChatGPT, which uses AI to guess which word comes next, is improving rapidly. A few months ago, he couldn’t write a real haiku; now he can do it with flying colors. On Tuesday, OpenAI unveiled its next-generation AI engine, GPT-4, which powers ChatGPT.

The excitement around chatbots illustrates how Siri, Alexa, and other voice assistants — which once garnered similar excitement — have squandered their lead in the AI ​​race.

Over the past decade, products have encountered obstacles. Siri encountered technological hurdles, including clunky code that took weeks to update with basic functionality, said John Burkey, a former Apple engineer who worked on the assistant. Amazon and Google miscalculated how voice assistants would be used, leading them to invest in areas with rarely profitable technology, former employees said. When those experiments failed, enthusiasm for the technology waned in companies, they said.

Voice assistants are “stupid as a rock,” Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella said in an interview this month with the Financial Times, saying new AI would lead the way. Microsoft has worked closely with OpenAI, investing $13 billion in the startup and integrating its technology into the Bing search engine and other products.

Apple declined to comment on Siri. Google said it was committed to providing a great virtual assistant to help people on their phones and inside their homes and cars; the company is separately testing a chatbot called Bard. Amazon said it saw a 30% increase in global customer engagement with Alexa over the past year and was optimistic about its mission to create world-class AI.

Assistants and chatbots are based on different flavors of AI Chatbots are powered by so-called large language models, which are systems trained to recognize and generate text based on huge sets of mined data of the web. They can then suggest words to complete a sentence.

In contrast, Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant are essentially what are known as command and control systems. These can include a finite list of questions and requests such as “What’s the weather like in New York?” or “Turn on the bedroom lights”. If a user asks the virtual assistant to do something that’s not in their code, the bot just says it can’t help.

Siri also had a cumbersome design that made adding new features cumbersome, said Burkey, who was given the task of improving Siri in 2014. Siri’s database contains a gigantic list of words, including the names of musical artists and places. like restaurants, in nearly two dozen languages.

It made it “one big snowball,” he said. If someone wanted to add a word to Siri’s database, they added, “it goes in a big pile.”

So seemingly simple updates, like adding new phrases to the dataset, would require rebuilding the entire database, which could take up to six weeks, Mr. Burkey. Adding more complex features like new search tools could take almost a year. That meant there was no way for Siri to become a creative assistant like ChatGPT, he said.

Alexa and Google Assistant relied on technology similar to Siri, but companies struggled to generate meaningful revenue from assistants, former Amazon and Google officials said. (In contrast, Apple has successfully used Siri to lure buyers to its iPhones.)

After Amazon launched the Echo, an Alexa-powered smart speaker, in 2014, the company hoped the product would help it boost sales for its online store by allowing consumers to talk to Alexa to switch. orders, said a former Amazon executive involved with Alexa. But while people had fun playing with Alexa’s ability to respond to weather prompts and set alarms, few asked Alexa to order items, he added.

Amazon may have overinvested in making new types of hardware, like now-discontinued alarm clocks and microwaves that worked with Alexa, that sold at or below cost, the former executive said.

The company has also underinvested in creating an ecosystem that allows users to easily extend Alexa’s capabilities, like Apple had done with its App Store, which helped spark interest in the app. iPhone, the person said. While Amazon offered a “skills” store to allow Alexa to control third-party accessories like light switches, it was difficult for people to find and set up skills for the speakers, unlike the frictionless experience of downloading mobile apps from app stores.

“We never had that App Store moment for Assistants,” said Carolina Milanesi, consumer technology analyst for research firm Creative Strategies, who was a consultant for Amazon.

At the end of last year, the Amazon division working on Alexa was a major target of the company’s 18,000 layoffs, and a number of top Alexa executives left the company.

Kinley Pearsall, an Amazon spokeswoman, said Alexa is more than a voice assistant, and “we’re more optimistic about this mission than ever.”

Amazon’s hiccups with Alexa may have led Google astray, said a former manager who worked on Google Assistant. Google engineers spent years experimenting with its assistant to mimic what Alexa could do, including designing voice-activated smart speakers and tablet screens to control home accessories like thermostats and light switches. ‘lighting. The company then embedded advertisements into these home products, which did not become a major source of revenue.

Over time, Google realized that most people only use the voice assistant for a limited number of simple tasks, such as starting timers and playing music, the former official said. In 2020, when Prabhakar Raghavan, a Google executive, took over Google Assistant, his group refocused the virtual companion as a flagship feature for Android smartphones.

In January, when Google’s parent company laid off 12,000 employees, the team working on operating systems for home devices lost 16% of its engineers.

Many big tech companies are now rushing to offer ChatGPT answers. At Apple headquarters last month, the company hosted its annual AI Summit, an internal event for employees to learn about its big language model and other AI tools, two people briefed on the matter said. program. Many engineers, including members of the Siri team, tested language-generating concepts every week, the people said.

On Tuesday, Google also announced that it would soon release generative AI tools to help businesses, governments and software developers build apps with built-in chatbots and integrate the underlying technology into their systems.

In the future, chatbot and voice assistant technologies will converge, AI experts say. This means people will be able to control chatbots with speech, and those using Apple, Amazon and Google products will be able to ask virtual assistants to help them with their jobs, not just tasks like checking the weather.

“These products have never worked in the past because we’ve never had human-level dialogue capabilities,” said Aravind Srinivas, founder of Perplexity, an AI startup that offers a powered search engine. by a chatbot. “Now we do.”

Cade Metz contributed report.


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