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Comment: Siri and HomePod will likely remain behind competing IAs, but there’s a reason for that

Siri has come under fresh attack today, with former members of Apple’s intelligent assistant team stating that it still lags behind its rivals despite the announcement of HomePod and improvements introduced in iOS 11.

Independent tests of the main IA systems also tend to bear this out, especially when it comes to personalization. Both Google Home and Amazon Echo have a better understanding than Siri of who we are and what we are likely to want.

The thing is, this isn’t coincidence – and doesn’t come without a cost …

Google is the master when it comes to big data. Many live almost their entire digital lives on Google. They conduct their web searches on Google. Send & receive email in Gmail. Schedule everything they do in Google Calendar. Upload all their photos through the Google Photos app. Read news stories via Google News. Search for products in Google Shopping. Use Google Translate while travelling. Upload their documents to Google Drive.

If you do all of this, Google gets to learn a massive amount about you and your life. Google services are able to use all of this data to be incredibly proactive in the way that they assist you. If you receive an email confirmation of a flight booking, for example, Google can add this to your calendar and – based on your current location – prompt you when it’s time to leave for the airport, all without you doing a thing.

So it’s no surprise that Google Home is smarter than Siri: it takes advantage of all the data it has to compile a comprehensive digital picture of who you are. Amazon Echo knows less about you, but if you do much of your shopping on Amazon, it still knows quite a lot.

Now that Apple is pitching in with its own speaker, the difference in capabilities of the three IA systems will come into even clearer focus.

Given the comprehensive nature of the Apple ecosystem, Apple could choose to go down the same route as Google. It could use all of the data it has about me, tie Siri queries to my Apple ID and deliver the same level of intelligence and proactive suggestions as Google Home. If it did so, nobody would be saying that Siri lags significantly behind Google’s IA.

But Apple makes a deliberate choice not to do so. When I ask Siri a question, my iPhone doesn’t attach my Apple ID to my query so that Siri’s servers can make contextual sense of it. All that is sent is a random identifier that cannot be linked to my identity in any way. The random identifier is used to help Siri learn my voice: it doesn’t know who I am, but it knows that my query came from (say) person 7582066701, and it can check back over six months to match my query against my voice file to better understand what I actually said.

Whenever you speak into Apple’s voice activated personal digital assistant, it ships it off to Apple’s data farm for analysis. Apple generates a random numbers to represent the user and it associates the voice files with that number. This number — not your Apple user ID or email address — represents you as far as Siri’s back-end voice analysis system is concerned.

Once the voice recording is six months old, Apple “disassociates” your user number from the clip, deleting the number from the voice file. But it keeps these disassociated files for up to 18 more months for testing and product improvement purposes.

That’s a huge difference in approach. Apple protects my privacy, but delivers a less helpful service. Google and Amazon make better assistants, but they know exactly who I am when I ask a question or issue a command.

I don’t think either approach is right or wrong. So long as companies are upfront about what they do with my data, I’m happy to weigh up the pros & cons and make my own decision about how much privacy I’m willing to sacrifice in order to take advantage of a particular service.

But I also recognize that I’m in a somewhat privileged position when it comes to making that choice. I don’t live in a country with a repressive regime (even if governments of late have taken us rather further in that direction than I would like). I don’t have any business, political or religious affiliations that would put me on anyone’s radar. I’m boringly law-abiding, saving my criminal enterprises for works of fiction. I don’t have any concerns that my government has any interest in surveilling me.

Apple knows that not everyone is as fortunate. The company chooses to err strongly on the side of privacy, no matter how much pressure is placed upon it, and I’m glad that it does so. I’m glad that option exists.

Will I ever switch IA platforms to take advantage of the greater power offered by a service which knows more about me? Maybe. But either way, I want that choice to exist, and right now Apple is the only player to offer the option of uncompromised privacy.

What are your own views? Is Apple right to favour privacy over power? Or would you prefer Apple to take the Google path, and use everything the company knows about you to deliver much more personalized Siri responses? As always, please take our poll and share your thoughts in the comments.

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Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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