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Apple’s use of AI has been hampered by caution and organizational dysfunction, according to former employees who spoke to The Information’s Wayne Ma. The report reveals that Apple’s AI and machine learning groups lack ambition, leading to underwhelming advancements in Siri and other AI technologies.
Siri, in particular, is apparently “widely derided” inside the company for its lack of functionality and minimal improvement over time. The team working on Siri had “devolved into a mess” by 2018, driven by petty turf battles between senior leaders and heated arguments over the direction of the assistant. Siri’s leadership did not want to invest in building tools to analyze its usage, and engineers lacked the ability to obtain basic details such as how many people were using the virtual assistant and how often they were doing so.
Many Apple employees left the company because it was too slow to make decisions or too conservative in its approach to new AI technologies. Apple CEO Tim Cook personally attempted to persuade engineers who helped Apple modernize its search technology to stay at the company before they left to work on large-language models at Google.
Apple executives are said to have dismissed proposals to give Siri the ability to conduct extended back-and-forth conversations, claiming that the feature would be difficult to control and gimmicky. Apple’s uncompromising stance on privacy has also created challenges for enhancing Siri, with the company pushing for more of the virtual assistant’s functions to be performed on-device.
Apple’s design team repeatedly rejected the feature that enabled users to report a concern or issue with the content of a Siri answer, preventing machine-learning engineers from understanding mistakes, because it wanted Siri to appear “all-knowing”.
In 2019, the Siri team explored a project to rewrite the virtual assistant from scratch, codenamed “Blackbird”. Demos of Blackbird apparently prompted excitement among Apple employees owing to its utility and responsiveness. However, Blackbird competed with the work of two senior leaders on the Siri team who were responsible for helping Siri understand and respond to queries. These individuals pushed for their own project, codenamed “Siri X”, for the 10th anniversary of the virtual assistant.
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The project aimed to move Siri’s processing on-device for privacy reasons, without the lightweight, modular functionality of Blackbird. Hundreds of employees working on Blackbird were assigned to Siri X, which killed the ambitious project to make Siri more capable. Siri X was mostly completed in 2021 and now many of the voice assistant’s functions are processed locally.
The group working on Apple’s mixed reality headset was reportedly disappointed by the demonstrations provided by the Siri team on how the virtual assistant could control the headset. At one point in the device’s development, the headset team considered building an alternative method for controlling the device using voice commands because Siri was deemed to be unsatisfactory.