How the movie Her inspired Apple to create a better Siri

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The iPhone's home button could be going away.
Siri is set to get some big upgrades with iOS 11.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

For its next act with Siri, Apple is taking some cues from one of the tech world’s biggest sources of inspiration: Hollywood.

With the release of iOS 11 later this month, Siri is set to get some big upgrades. The most notable will be the AI helper’s silky-smooth voice. And according to one Apple exec, the movie Her played a big role in helping the company figure out the changes they should make.

In an interview with Wired, Alex Acero, the Apple boss in charge of the tech behind Siri, says watching the movie Her helped him learn what would make Siri’s voice more appealing.

If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, it follows a man named Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who falls in love with his artificially intelligent computer assistant, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Acero says the first time he saw the film, he watched it like a normal human. But during the second viewing, he kept his eyes closed and just paid attention to the way Johansson talked.

“It is natural! It was not robotic!” said Acero. “It has the right pauses, the right intonations, smooth voice. And just a little bit metallic in the sound.”

Making Siri sound more natural

When iOS 11 comes out, you’ll hear some minor tweaks in Siri’s voice that sound major. Siri elongates syllables before a pause and lilts up and down while speaking. Overall, the AI assistant sounds more fluid.

To pull those changes off, Acero revealed that his team brings in hundreds of voice actors to read books, newspapers, web articles and phrases Siri might hear. Apple’s algorithms then identify and organize phonemes — units of sound that make up a word.

None of the words Siri speaks were recorded the way they’re spoken. Instead, Siri assembles the dozens or hundreds of phonemes in a sentence “like magazine cut-outs in a ransom note,” Acero said.

The entire process is incredibly detailed. And Apple does it for dozens of languages, allowing Siri to support more languages than all of its competitors combined.

If you’re into phonetics and machine learning, definitely check out Wired’s full article on all the details that went into the process of making Siri more human. Or just wait to experience the changes yourself. iOS 11 should be available soon after the iPhone 8 keynote on September 12.

  • Serban Veres

    Stop praising apple for this sub-par product that Siri is. It’s been (how many?) years now since they have introduced it and I the improvements have been marginal at best. It’s really a stupid product. The only way they might get it better is if you start criticising them instead of praising them so much.

    “Siri elongates syllables before a pause and lilts up and down while speaking”. WOW, I’m so sure I’ll enjoy her elongated syllables when she will tell me “I’m sorry, I did not understand that” :))

    • astrodad

      The article is about Siri’s voice, not about it’s features. I’ve been using iOS 11 and I agree that the new voice is much more natural. A welcome improvement.