Apple may be making strides toward the digital assistant of the future long imagined by popular science fiction shows like Star Trek – one that responds to any and every question you might have with the ease and grace of an exceptionally charming, talking encyclopedia.
Last Thursday, the United States Patent and Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple titled “Crowd Sourcing Information to Fulfill User Requests,” sparking conversation about future enhancements to Siri, the company’s personal-assistant application for the iPhone and iPad.
According to the patent, users who request information via speech input but do not get a satisfactory response will then receive further crowdsourced information via “one or more crowd sourcing information sources.”
The answers would not necessarily be instantaneous – the patent application mentions a delayed response time ranging from several minutes to hours, days or even weeks.
User response to Siri, thus far, has been mixed – on initial release, the technology was considered groundbreaking, but a May 2012 customer satisfaction survey showed that only 55% of users were satisfied with the service.
Too Much Like Competitors?
Presently, Siri relies on information from a variety of websites, including Bing, Google, Wolfram Alpha, Yelp, RottenTomatoes and The New York Times, to provide answers to users seeking information.
There has been some criticism of the proposed feature as being too similar to the crowdsourced search engine ChaCha, which relies on human “Guides” to provide answers to user questions in real time. ChaCha received $14 million in venture funding in January of 2013; Apple filed its patent two months later, in March. ChaCha is said to potentially own the largest database of user questions and answers on the Web, with 2.5 billion questions and more than 130 million question-answer pairs.
Criticism for Lack of Innovation
Although often thought of as a forward-thinking company, Apple recently has faced criticism that the company lacks innovation, and that since its release of the iPhone and iPad it has done little to push technology forward. The company has responded by saying that new technology such as the fingerprint scanner in the iPhone 5S is a huge technological achievement, and that they prefer to perfect the features that count rather than introducing more “that we could try to find a use for to add to our features list,” according to Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Apple on the Crowdsourcing Wagon
This new patent application is not Apple’s only foray into the crowdsourcing world in 2013. In July, the company confirmed that it had acquired Locationary, a crowdsourced location data company based in Toronto – ostensibly to improve its troubled mapping service, Apple Maps. The mapping product incited such furious consumer backlash that Cook published an apology on the Apple website in September 2012.