On a rainy Tuesday in San Francisco, Apple executives took the stage to a packed auditorium to unveil the fifth generation of the iPhone.
The phone, which looked identical to the previous version, had a new feature that the public was quick to talk about:
Siri, a virtual assistant.
Scott Forstall, then Apple's chief software officer, pressed a button on the iPhone to call Siri and asked questions.
At his request, Siri checked the time in Paris ("8:16 pm," Siri replied), defined the word "
" ("Cell division in which the nucleus divides into nuclei containing the same number of chromosomes", he said) and
came up with a list of 14
highly-rated Greek restaurants, five of them in Palo Alto, California.
"I've been in the field of artificial intelligence for a long time and this continues to amaze me," says Forstall.
That was 12 years ago.
Since then, Siri and competing AI-powered assistants like Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant have left no one indifferent.
Technology has largely stagnated, and talking assistants have become the butt of jokes, including in a
2018 "Saturday Night Live" skit that featured a smart speaker for seniors.
The tech world is now excited about a different kind of virtual assistant:
These AI-based bots, like ChatGPT and the new ChatGPT Plus from San Francisco-based company OpenAI, can quickly improvise answers to questions typed in a chat box.
People have used ChatGPT to perform complex tasks like coding software,
writing business proposals, and writing fiction.
And ChatGPT, which uses artificial intelligence to guess what word comes next, is rapidly improving.
A few months ago I was not capable of writing a haiku;
now he does it with pleasure.
On Tuesday, OpenAI unveiled its next-generation Artificial Intelligence engine, GPT-4, which ChatGPT is powered by.
The triumph of ChatGPT, the fall of attendees
The excitement around chatbots illustrates how Siri, Alexa and other voice assistants that once elicited similar enthusiasm have
squandered their lead in the AI race.
In the past decade, products have hit roadblocks.
Siri ran into technological difficulties, including clunky code that took weeks to update with basic features, according to 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 the technology that
rarely paid off, former employees said
When those experiments failed, enthusiasm for the technology waned at companies, they said.
Voice assistants are "dumb as a rock," Satya Nadella, Microsoft's chief executive, said in an interview this month with The Financial Times, declaring that the latest Artificial Intelligence would lead the way.
Microsoft has worked closely with OpenAI, investing $13 billion in the start-up and incorporating its technology into the Bing search engine
as well as other products.
Google and Apple: what will they do with their assistants
The Google assistant allows you to control the phone with voice commands.
Apple declined to comment on Siri.
Google promised to offer 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 percent increase in customer engagement
globally with Alexa in the past year and was optimistic about its mission to build world-class Artificial Intelligence.
Assistants and chatbots are based on different types of Artificial Intelligence.
Chatbots work with what are known as large linguistic models, which are systems trained to recognize and generate text
from huge data sets pulled from the web
They can then suggest words to complete a sentence.
Instead, Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant are essentially what's known as command and control systems.
They can understand a finite list of questions and requests such as "
What's the weather like in New York?
" or "Turn on the lights in the bedroom."
If a user asks the virtual assistant to do something that isn't in its code, the bot simply says it can't help.
Siri also had a cumbersome design that made it time-consuming to add new features, said Mr. Burkey, who was given the job of improving Siri in 2014. Siri's database contains a gigantic list of words,
the names of musical artists and places like restaurants, in nearly two dozen languages.
That made it "a big snowball," he said.
If someone wants to add a word to Siri's database, she added, "it's going to end up in a big bunch."
So seemingly simple updates, like adding a few new phrases to the data set, would require rebuilding the entire database, which could take up to six weeks, Burkey said.
Adding more complex features,
such as new search tools, could take almost a year.
That meant there was no way for Siri to become a creative assistant like ChatGPT, she said.
Alexa and the Google Assistant were based on technology similar to Siri, but companies struggled to generate significant revenue from the assistants, former Amazon and Google managers said.
(Instead, Apple successfully used Siri to attract shoppers to its iPhones.)
Another of the best-known virtual assistants in the world.
After Amazon launched the Echo, an Alexa-powered smart speaker, in 2014, the company hoped the product would help it boost sales at its online store by letting consumers talk to Alexa to place orders, a former
. Amazon leader 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 invested too much in making new kinds of hardware, like now-discontinued alarm clocks and microwaves that work with Alexa, that were selling at
cost , the former executive said.
The company also invested little in creating an ecosystem for people to easily extend Alexa's capabilities, in the same way that Apple had done with its App Store, which helped fuel interest in the iPhone, the person said.
Although Amazon offered a "
" store for Alexa to control third-party accessories like light switches, people found it difficult to find and set skills for the speakers, unlike the frictionless experience of downloading mobile apps from the app stores.
"We never had that App Store moment for attendees," says Carolina Milanesi, a
consumer technology analyst
at research firm Creative Strategies who previously consulted for Amazon.
As of late last year, the Amazon division working on Alexa was one of the top targets of the company's 18,000 layoffs, and several top Alexa executives have left the company.
Kinley Pearsall, an Amazon spokesman, said Alexa was much more than a voice assistant, and
"we're as optimistic about that mission as ever."
Amazon's glitches with Alexa may have led Google astray, says a former executive who worked on Google Assistant.
Google engineers spent years experimenting with their assistant to mimic what Alexa could do, including designing voice-controlled smart speakers and tablet screens to control home accessories like thermostats and light switches
The company later embedded advertisements into
those household products
, which did not become a significant source of revenue.
Over time, Google realized that most people used the voice assistant for only a limited number of simple tasks, like setting timers and
playing music, the former executive explained.
In 2020, when Prabhakar Raghavan, a Google executive, took over Google Assistant, his group refocused the virtual companion as a marquee feature for Android smartphones.
In January, when Google's parent company laid off
, the team working on operating systems for home devices lost 16% of its engineers.
Many of the big tech companies are now rushing to respond to ChatGPT.
At Apple's headquarters, the company last month held its annual AI Summit, an internal event for employees to learn about its great language model and other AI tools, two people briefed on the show said.
, including members of the Siri team, have been testing language generation concepts every week, the people said.
On Tuesday, Google also said it would soon launch Generative AI tools to help businesses, governments and software developers build apps with embedded chatbots and
incorporate the underlying technology into their systems.
According to AI experts, the technologies of chatbots and voice assistants will converge in the future.
That means people will be able to control chatbots with speech, and
users of Apple, Amazon and Google products
will be able to ask virtual assistants to help them with their jobs, not just with tasks like checking the weather.
"These products never worked in the past because we never had human-level dialogue capabilities," said Aravind Srinivas, founder of Perplexity, an AI start-up that offers a chatbot-powered search engine.
"Now we do."
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