June 09, 2021 at 04:42PM

Coming out of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) there were all kinds of news tidbits to pick through — upgrades to the OS to better protect privacy, the exploding app ecosystem, upgrades to the menu of services and an addition to Apple Wallet that will allow users to create a digital identity cards by adding their state ID or driver’s licenses.

And in a day that was marked by announcements of upgrades, add-ons and extensions of Apple’s offerings, the brand’s often overlooked voice assistant Siri enjoyed its share of the spotlight at WWDC this time around, with several upcoming upgrades announced aimed at making the voice artificial intelligence (AI) more accessible and useful for consumers.

The Latest Upgrades 

Historically, when working with Siri to make certain types of requests — like changing a phone setting — there have been additional authentication steps requiring the user to confirm the request by using touch or Face ID.

At WWDC this week, Apple announced those additional authentication steps to leverage Siri will no longer be necessary for Apple users wearing an Apple Watch. Since users faces are often obscured by mask these days, Apple Watch can now step up and provide substitute authentication — provided said watch is “passcode protected, unlocked, and on the consumer’s wrist close by.”

Siri also got an extension of reach, as Apple further announced it will now be able to process audio on-device by default in iOS 15, meaning users will be able to access Siri without an active internet connection. Apple says the upgrade will also make Siri able to process commands faster and make Siri a more private service.

“These addresses one of the biggest privacy concerns for voice assistants, which is unwanted audio recording,” Apple said in a press statement.

The function will obviously limit some of Siri’s functionality — asking how much rainfall Argentina gets on average annually will not be the sort of question Siri will be answering minus the ability to search the web. But users will retain the ability to use Apple’s digital assistant for simple navigational tasks, like controlling music, opening apps or setting timers.

The Big Change 

The biggest switch coming out of WWDC, however, is the announcement that Siri will soon be available for use outside an Apple device. Siri is finally coming to third-party devices via a new HomeKit accessory that makers will be able to use to integrate Siri voice control into their products starting later this year. The voice assistant will be routed through a HomePod if the devices are connected to a user’s network. Moreover, Apple also announced support for Matter — a new interoperability standard that has big players like Amazon, Google, and Samsung already signed on — will come with iOS 15.

Do the new upgrades mean Apple has caught up to voice segment leader Amazon’s Alexa, or to runner-up Google and its Assistant?

In a word, no — both Google and Amazon have been third-party applicable for the last several years. The focus on making Siri the voice assistant for the privacy concerned is an interesting point to highlight, particularly given how Amazon’s latest set of Alexa upgrades making the voice AI capable of acting a bit more independently in combination with its announced launch of Sidewalk have set off a new round of privacy concerns.

Siri, it seems, is raising the level of its game, and is focusing on areas where its competition is at least perceived as having a weakness. But it remains fairly far behind others in the race — and while enhanced privacy controls might provide a boost, it seems like Apple’s take on voice AI is going to need some bigger upgrades to the experience to begin to close that gap.

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