Apple’s Siri is becoming a better conversationalist

Apple's Siri

Apple's Siri

(CNN) — You’ve probably seen the new Apple TV ads with actor John Malkovich having what looks like the most charming chat of his life with Siri, the voice-activated “personal assistant” on the iPhone 4S.

“That’s pretty spectacular advice, actually,” Malkovich says after Siri tells him to avoid fat, read good books, take walks and “live together in peace and harmony” with everyone.

“I enjoyed this chat immensely,” he continues in his familiar soothing-creepy voice. “You are very eloquent.”

To many other iPhone 4S owners, however, Siri isn’t such a scintillating conversationalist. She oftens fails to understand what’s spoken to her, and many of her responses are little more than lists of Google search results. Disappointed iPhone users have even filed a class-action suit against Apple, claiming that Siri doesn’t work as well as advertised.

That may be about to change, however.

In the eight months since she debuted in October, Siri has been “studying up and learning a lot more,” Apple Senior Vice President Scott Forstall said during a presentation Monday at Apple’s annual developers’ conference. Forstall then previewed some advancements to Siri that will come this fall as part of iOS 6, the company’s next mobile operating system.

Apple is equipping Siri with new databases of knowledge, including the ability to retrieve sports scores. She’ll also be able to open an app for you, search movie showtimes, post Facebook updates, make restaurant reservations and provide turn-by-turn navigation to drivers with Apple’s new maps application.

But based on the glimpses we saw Monday, the most interesting improvement to Siri may be the language she uses in her answers, which already sound more natural and conversational.

For example, Forstall demoed Siri onstage by asking, “Who is taller: LeBron or Kobe?” (For the NBA stars, no last names were required, apparently.) Instead of directing him to a Web search or maybe pulling up info on Japanese beef, Siri answered without hesitation: “LeBron James appears to be slightly taller.”

Jason Gilbert, writing for the Huffington Post, called this exchange “the most important thing that was said on stage” over the course of Apple’s 90-minute event.

“What the question really demonstrated, however, is that Apple’s strongest, most dazzling weapon in the war to differentiate its iPhone from All Those Other Smartphones just received a fresh stockpile of ammunition,” Gilbert wrote. He argues that a refined Siri may be a bigger boost to future iPhones and iPads than the other new features Apple announced Monday, most of which already exist on rival devices.

“It was Siri flawlessly and quickly answering a mundane question about basketball that Apple should be most excited about: LeBron is taller, Siri is smarter, and the bewitching Apple advertising juggernaut shall parade forward,” Gilbert added.

Apple did not respond Tuesday to a request for more details about the next-generation Siri, which will probably come standard on the next iPhone this fall.

But it’s clear from CEO Tim Cook’s recent comments that Apple sees Siri as a big part of its mobile future.

“Siri is one of the most popular features of iPhone 4S,” Cook said at last month’s D10 conference. “But there’s more that it can do, and we have a lot of people working on this. And I think you will be really pleased with some of the things you’re going to see over the coming months. We have some cool ideas about what Siri can do. We have a lot going on on this. … Sure, it can be broader, and so forth, but we see unbelievable potential here. We’re doubling down on it.”

We’ll probably find out by late October whether a new Siri is better company than the current one. Maybe by then, people will stop mocking the John Malkovich ads.

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