Part of the reason for the difficulty is that Apple wants to keep the AI running on the device rather than on servers at Apple.
During his presentation at the Worldwide Developers Conference opening keynote June 14, Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, said the company believes that the company should provide "great privacy and great features." This means that Apple wants what Federighi called "deep learning" to run on Apple devices.
Deep learning is a major function of AI, but it has one characteristic that's normally not compatible with mobile phones and tablets—it requires a lot of processing power. A high-end Mac won't have too much trouble handling deep learning, but its primary target is the iPhone followed by the iPad. Even with their 64-bit processors and the greater processor memory now built into the latest devices, it's not clear an iPhone will have the required processing power.
But does it matter if the iPhone falls short? Maybe not. While Apple can always crank up processor speeds and memory, what may matter most is whether the growth of Siri's AI is enough to make speech recognition accurate and to provide complete vocalized responses, rather than just doing a search and displaying a Web page.
Perhaps with more intelligence, and some third-party support, Siri will be able to answer a question such as the one I posed today, when I asked whether FedEx had delivered an iPad I'd returned to Apple. For now, what I got was, "Interesting question, Wayne."
Or perhaps Siri will just get better at voice recognition, which is a challenge Apple has been dealing with for decades, starting with handwriting recognition on its old Newton personal digital assistant from the 1990s. Siri isn't talking about egg freckles, but the assistant sometimes can generate some whoppers when it misunderstands.
But problems understanding questions aren't limited to Siri. All too often I'll be greeted by a simple "Boing!" when Alexa can't understand a question that I'm asking. Cortana isn't really any better, except with Cortana I can type in a query.
In some ways the AI assistant race isn't about which is winning; rather, we're seeing the very early beginnings of how artificial intelligence can affect us. We already have a way to ask questions simply by speaking. The fact that it's not working very well is no surprise. But the current state of AI is showing promise for future generations of digital assistants.
It won't be very long before all we need to do to ask a question and receive a reliable answer is to simply speak up. Somewhere in our office or living room, a device will be listening and will provide a coherent answer. Just don't ask it to divide zero by zero.