Bots are mundane, but Siri could be magical

Bots are mundane, but Siri could be magical

I don’t want to chat with the command line, just make Siri awesome.

Apple has one of the most popular messaging services around, iMessage. They have an AI “bot” already used daily by millions across the globe, Siri. They have an extensive and robust, if imperfect, marketplace for third-parties, the App Store. If Apple can integrate these three services: messaging, a digital assistant, and a third-party marketplace, then I think they’ve got a great shot at dominating the wave of bots that is supposedly coming.

Apps Aren’t Broken

Most people aren’t going to find the process of discovering and engaging bots any easier than discovering and installing apps. Is the App Store a great place to discover apps? Not really. But the whole world knows how to install an app if you tell them its name.1 Bots per se don’t make discovery any easier. There’s still a marketplace or directory, and pressing “start chat” versus “get” really doesn’t change the process in any meaningful way. If anything, a separate “bot store” within an app (say, Facebook’s Messenger) is a more confusing arrangement for most folks.2

Bots aren’t always going to be better than apps. Bots have the potential to be really great when a person has a good idea of what they want, but I’m not convinced they’re better when someone is exploring. For example, if I want to make reservations at the Turtle Club restaurant here in Naples, I can see the appeal of telling a bot to “make a reservation for two at the Turtle Club tonight”. However, if I’m looking for a romantic restaurant the Foursquare app is going to be much better and faster at showing me all my options and detailed information than a chat-style interaction even if that chat is enhanced beyond just plain text.

As far as interaction goes, I’m not sure that typing out “make a reservation for two at the Turtle Club tonight” is really a lot easier than the few taps it’d take for me to do the same in the OpenTable app. As anyone who’s ever used the command line knows, an important difference in the experience of typing a command and using an app is that you don’t know if your command is properly interpreted until after you’ve made it.3 In an app, you get confirmation and guidance as you go. This isn’t an insurmountable issue; Flexibits’ Fantastical does an outstanding job in this regard, taking natural language input and visually confirming to the person typing how it will be interpreted when they press enter. Similarly, the implementation of bots in Telegram thus far seems to recognize this issue and tries to address it by showing live results for @gif or @YouTube searches. Still, I don’t think long complicated commands being typed into computers is really the future. It sounds a lot like the past.

But you know what sounds a lot like the future?

Talking to computers.

“Computer…”

The most natural evolution, it seems to me, would be for Apple to allow third-party apps (not just bots by another mechanism) to extend Siri. Of course, this idea isn’t new, since the introduction of Siri third-parties have wanted Apple to provide an API for extending her capabilities, or “skills”.4 What’s new is the renewed focus on natural language interaction that the current bot trend has encouraged. There is also now a precedent for Apple allowing third-party apps to extend and change system-wide services on iOS. (C.f. Safari ad blockers, spotlight search results, or even today widgets.) When I imagine talking to bots, or at least starting the conversation by speaking, this really starts to sound exciting.

Especially with Siri on Apple Watch.

Ask people who love Apple Watch why they do, and you’re probably going to hear these things again and again: Health & Fitness, Notifications, Complications, and Siri.

The convenience of “Hey Siri…” on my wrist, even though there are very few use cases, still surprises me. Every morning I ask Siri to set a timer while my coffee steeps. Every afternoon when I go on a walk I ask her to “start an outdoor walk with no goal”. When I’m trying to focus on a problem or develop an idea and some mundane to-do or distraction pops into my head, I just raise my wrist and ask Siri to remind me later. When I get in the car and need directions, I raise my wrist and ask Siri. When I’m cooking and need a quick conversion, or calculation, I raise my wrist and ask Siri.

Allowing third-parties to extend Siri would obviously make the service more useful by increasing the number of actions available to Siri. However, as others have suggested, also creating a dedicated iMessage thread for more advanced interactions with Siri sounds like a great idea. As it is today, Siri on iOS 9 does display rich “widgets” in response to many requests such as setting timers, showing sports scores, requesting definitions, peeking at Wikipedia entries, and on Apple Watch you can even ask Siri to display glances (including ones you haven’t set to display when you swipe up) and she does so inline.5 Something like glances or today widgets could be part of a Siri API and allow many of the more interesting bot interactions that folks have imagined or built on other platforms.

Texting Siri

Being able to access my chat history with Siri, as well as to interact without speaking sometimes, is an attractive prospect too. It is occasionally frustrating that the Siri interface on iOS and Apple Watch just disappears and there’s no history. Sometimes I want to switch between a Siri screen, such as a conversion of ounces to tablespoons, and my favorite recipe manager, Paprika. Or I want to copy and paste the response to a query elsewhere. These and other benefits to a chat-style interface with a “bot” are clear, I think.6

But I don’t want 50 “bots” junking up my messages with actual humans with whom I’m having conversations.

Email already suffers from too many impersonal, automatic, messages crowding out actual human-to-human conversation. Avoiding email and its legacy distractions is probably no small part of why iMessage, Slack, Telegram & the like are so attractive to begin with. Importing all that junk into their systems seems like a bad long-term decision. As cool as asking Siri to book a dinner reservation for me sounds, I would hate to have an iMessage thread with the OpenTable bot, and a hundred others, mixed in with my conversations with friends, family and business folks. By implementing dedicated Siri iMessage thread, or something similar, you’d have a truly unified interface for chatting with a “bot” without overwhelming the messaging app with tons of different bots.

Magical

I find today’s bots to be kind of boring. Cool, sure… I guess. But boring. I don’t expect to see any welcomed to iOS by Apple. I expect instead to see Apple allow third parties to extend and enhance Siri through apps, taking all those things which seem attractive about bots (most especially the natural language interaction) but in the far more convenient and accessible form of Siri, on your wrist or desk, and in your pocket or living room. I also hope that Apple will introduce some kind of iMessage-style method of interacting with Siri and offer developers a way to include interactive widgets in Siri responses. Finally, perhaps we’ll eventually see some of Notification Center folded into Siri as simply our digital assistant’s way of proactively reaching out to us with a message.

This Jarvis-like scenario for Siri sounds more magical to me today than chatting with the command line. If there’s anything Apple does well, it’s making today’s magical, tomorrow’s mundane.


Update 2016-04-18 at 2:50 PM: Just saw MacStories post that WWDC ‘16 was “announced” via Siri. Perhaps it was a leak more than an announcement, but having published this a few hours before, I’m obviously expecting great things from Siri and wouldn’t be surprised if this was done with purpose. (I added the featured image to this post because it’s just perfect now.)


  1. Sure, if you search “Twitter” you might not find Tweetbot but if you’re looking for Tweetbot you’ll get it. 

  2. As others have pointed out. Also, this seems like a really unstable position for Facebook. Would buying a Kindle book through a chat with Amazon-bot in Messenger be subject to a fee from Apple? Would Facebook want a cut too? Would such a thing be allowed at all? Would bots on iOS be able to do the same things as bots at Facebook.com? I can foresee bots replying “I’m sorry, I can’t do that here but if you tap this link I can help you at Facebook.com”. Everyone loves unhelpful robots who redirect you to their website. 

  3. As much as I enjoy Telegram and Slack, the so-called “slash commands” are not really easy to remember, and are certainly are more difficult to discover than similar actions in apps with buttons and menus. Even for geeks like me who love Markdown it is most common for us to have various tools to automatically or semi-automatically generate the necessary–even if minimal–markup. 

  4. “Skills”, I learned from David Bernard, are what Amazon calls the extensions or add-ons for Alexa. 

  5. This is actually the only way I’ve really found glances to be of any use, as Richard Turton points out, the “swipe up” gesture is a waste. 

  6. One less obvious benefit to giving Siri an iMessage thread might be that it’d show concretely why end-to-end encryption is so vital in the service. Presumably, Siri would be able to spend money for me, and nobody likes the idea of insecure banking. This is something I think any judge or jury would instantly grasp. 


While it defies U.S. government, Apple abides by China's orders — and reaps big rewards →

The title of this article in the LA Times implies that Apple is accommodating Chinese government orders, but not American ones, and that it does so for the sake of money.

This is nonsense.

[Apple] censored apps that wouldn’t pass muster with Chinese authorities

​Apple does the same in the U.S., in fact it goes far beyond and censors apps that are legal but which Apple still deems not to allow in their store. The most clear example is pornography. From day one it has been banned from the App Store, despite the fact that pornography is not illegal (in the U.S.) and is by all counts the biggest money-making opportunity on the internet. Apple removes apps from the U.S. App Store which violate U.S. copyright. They famously disallowed any Bitcoin-trading apps, because of U.S. law. In short, Apple “censors” its App Store in the U.S. according to U.S. law, and presumably by Chinese law in China. In other words: it’s fair.

If this as proof that Apple is partial to Chinese demands over American, one would be forced to admit that Walmart too has capitulated to Beijing because they don’t sell firearms in China despite the fact their stores in the U.S. do.

All that said, the issue of what Apple chooses to sell or not sell in their App Store is a completely different issue than whether or not it should be compelled to help governments access encrypted data.

The second supposed evidence that Apple bends the knee to Beijing:

[Apple] moved local user data onto servers operated by the state-owned China Telecom

First of all, this was likely a result of the fact that the NSA was revealed to have been duplicating byte-for-byte all the data passing our borders. European countries passed similar laws and applied similar pressure. Apple complied with them, building multi-billion dollar data centers in Europe. Last year, Bloomberg reported:

Spying threats, in the aftermath of leaks about the U.S. National Security Agency’s data-collection programs, have prompted governments including France and private companies in Europe to adopt stricter data-protection requirements.

Those tighter rules have meant asking providers to host more customer information, such as health records, locally. To tend to this demand, U.S. providers including Salesforce.com Inc. have bulked up their data-center presence in Europe.

Of course, it also makes technical sense to locate data near customers because it gives them faster and therefore better service. Indeed, this is exactly the main reason Apple gave when they announced they’d store data on Chinese soil, according to Reuters:

Apple said the move was part of an effort to improve the speed and reliability of its iCloud service, which lets users store pictures, e-mail and other data. Positioning data centers as close to customers as possible means faster service.

Apple uses third-parties to host data, and in China those third parties are state owned. Far from offering support to the idea that the FBI should be allowed a backdoor into Apple customer data, this underscores the importance of good encryption. Again, from Reuters, here’s what Apple said about the data in the China Telecom Corp datacenter:

“Apple takes user security and privacy very seriously,” it said. “We have added China Telecom to our list of data center providers to increase bandwidth and improve performance for our customers in mainland china. All data stored with our providers is encrypted. China Telecom does not have access to the content.

Emphasis added.

So far, there is no evidence that Apple has been more accommodating to the Chinese government than the American government or any other sovereign State, but has in fact publicly stated that they encrypt user data. They explicitly denying China Telecom Corp access.

Tuning back to the LA Times article, we find the third accusation against Apple:

[Apple] submits to security audits by Chinese authorities

​If Apple is building truly secure systems, having some knucklehead government inspectors is no big deal. And to the point of the article: do we have any evidence that Apple would deny the same to a U.S. law requiring the same? No.

The LA Times then quotes James Lewis, senior fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies:

“I can’t imagine the Chinese would tolerate end-to-end encryption or a refusal to cooperate with their police, particularly in a terrorism case.”

​And yet, the same iPhones that the FBI are presumably unable to hack are also sold in China. Also presumably unable to be hacked by the Chinese government. More to the point, iMessages sent in China, like the U.S. are encrypted and even Apple cannot read them. Mr. Lewis, evidently unknowingly, reveals that Apple has indeed brought the unbelievable to China: secure private communication for the masses.

Finally, this gem of doublethink is shared:

Despite criticism from foreign governments, including the White House, China is introducing security laws that are so vaguely worded some fear it will require technology companies to provide source codes and backdoors for market access

The FBI is demanding arguably worse: They want to compel Apple to create private source code, and sign that code, which would allow the FBI to force a backdoor.

If Apple were to do this for the FBI, how could they possibly deny the same to the Chinese, or Russian governments?

This is why it’s absolutely critical that private industry be allowed to innovate and build the most secure systems they can. This is why they should not be forced to decrypt or weaken the protections they’ve built. Weakening it for one, weakens it for all. Period. This is not a ideological “period” but a technical one. Something is either encrypted and secured or it is not. There are no half-measures. Encryption is math, and no matter what doublethink governments may try to apply, 2 plus 2 is not 5.


Apple launches rewards program to encourage retail employees to move those iPhones →

Yuck. This seems like a great way to ruin their retail experience.

The program promises rewards and all-expense paid vacations to Cupertino, California, to employees who sell the most iPhones in their region


Command-N

These Are Google Exec Eric Schmidt’s 9 Rules of Email

This is certainly not how I handle email, but I thought this was a very interesting “hack”. I wonder why he hasn’t had the gmail team address this in a better way yet.

If you get something you think you may want to recall later, forward it to yourself along with a few keywords that describe its content.

Rupert Murdoch’s private Las Vegas meetings feature Snapchat’s Spiegel and Apple’s Cue

Seems like a great opportunity for Cue to make a case for encryption to people who help shape the debate.

The event, described by past participants, is for an internal audience of Murdoch’s News Corp. and 21st Century Fox lieutenants.

Lawmaker vows to stop ‘Confederate cleansing’ and ‘cultural terrorism’ in Georgia

Lots of nonsense all around in this article, but the idea that Lee, Jackson, or Davis – the actual men memorialized in Stone Mountain – in any way would condone murder, especially in a church, is only possible if you know absolutely nothing about the actual men.

Confederate symbols and monuments like Stone Mountain, which depicts Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis, became the subject of intense debate last year, following the slaying of nine black parishioners by a white man at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

Peak Curtains

This will be interesting.

We will be increasingly building a circular IKEA where you can repair and recycle products

The Surprising New Normal in the Abortion Debate

Progress.

Each year about this time breathless headlines announce that the “pro-life” or “pro-choice” label is preferred by a narrow majority of Americans, yet it remains a more or less 50–50 proposition. In other words, the message is that America remains “a house divided” unable or unwilling to change the status quo.

But this narrative hides the reality that the decades-long debate over abortion actually has achieved a solid consensus.

Tim Cook, Swift, and the return of blogs

A good reminder.

There’s no single correct way to blog, though. Blogs are forgiving. If you’ve neglected your blog for a while, you don’t owe anyone an apology. Just hit command-N in your favorite text editor and start writing.


Encryption

I want to be absolutely clear that we have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.

– Tim Cook
Apple.com/Privacy

Encryption is an issue on which both american liberals and conservatives should find consensus. Sadly, the consensus among political leaders on both sides of the aisle seems to be that encryption is dangerous, and should Not Be Allowed.

On the contrary, no government should make any laws concerning encryption but should be happy to have private companies and organizations pouring time and money into creating ever-stronger encryption methods. Encryption isn’t just for criminals and terrorists: if you use email you use encryption (at least when you connect to your webmail login), if you use a bank you use encryption, if you have a password on your wifi network you use encryption, if you have an iPhone or iPad you use encryption. Anytime you see a small lock in the address bar of a website you’re using encryption. Why? Because encryption helps ensure that:

  • you are communicating with whom you intend to communicate
  • nobody else is listening in

There’s nothing wrong with those, I think any reasonable person would recognize them as goods.

For the sake of this argument, let’s assume for a moment that we all completely trust our own American government and don’t mind them listening in. Great. What about advertisers? Insurance companies? The media? Your neighbors? Your employer? Criminals? Foreign governments? Once you break encryption, it’s broken for everyone. This isn’t a technical issue that we’ll get over with better hardware or software, it is a fundamental to the whole idea of locking something. Weakening encryption “for law enforcement” or “in emergencies” means weakening encryption for everyone, always. There is no way around that fact.

But this is all an argument from practicality. Let’s look at it from a more slightly more principled perspective, or two.

A Brief Liberal Case for Encryption

American liberals love “privacy rights”. It was “privacy” which legalized Abortion. It was “privacy” which decriminalized sodomy. Surely, if the government can’t violate the privacy of individuals to save the lives of unborn babies, it can not violate it to save the lives of anyone else either. After all, “equality” is a favorite “right” of American Liberals too.

A Brief Conservative Case for Encryption

American conservatives love “limited government”. Handing the government a key to every bit of your life is a terrible way to limit power. Just as a conservative gun “rights” advocate would argue that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, the conservative encryption “rights” advocate might argue that “encryption doesn’t enable terrorists, terrorists enable terrorists”. Encryption is a tool, the vast majority of people and organizations use it for good, and the ones who use it for evil will do so regardless of its legality. Taking away legal encryption from the rest of us will only weaken all of us.1

I think the conservative case is actually much easier to make, and more well founded. Oddly, most american conservatives seem to oppose encryption while your average american liberal generally supports it. Regardless, from Obama to Bush, Sanders to Trump, and nearly everyone in-between, our politicians aren’t fans of encryption.

They should be. Imagine what we’d find if they weren’t protected by encryption.


  1. “Legal” encryption because even if laws were passed banning or limiting encryption, I suspect that vast numbers of people would continue to use it. It would be impossible to enforce completely, and the rest of the world would continue developing strong encryption. 


The Best Desktop Background Image for Mac

The Best Desktop Background Image for Mac

I just discovered the best settings for my Mac’s desktop background. In System Preferences, select the “Favorites” album (under Photos → Albums) and then check the “Change Picture” option, and a time interval that makes sense for you. (I chose 5 minutes, but might dial that back.) I also chose to randomize the display order as you can see above.

I really like this.


Shopping at Amazon's new physical store requires an app →

Though Quartz seems to find this a bit odd, it is the first time Amazon’s new brick and mortar bookstore has made sense to me. Quartz, emphasis added:

Around the aisles, signs tout the fact that in-store prices are the same as they are online. And here’s how you find those prices: You can use the Amazon app to scan the cover of the book or a barcode listed near the book; take the book to a price-checking station; or ask an employee to scan the book for you. That’s because in-store prices fluctuate just as they do on the website.

Showrooming is a problem for most brick and mortar retailers, certainly the large ones, and it is simultaneously very good for the likes of Amazon. Perhaps some goals of this experiment for Amazon are:

  • to introduce people to the idea of showrooming
  • encourage the practice
  • get a close up view watching closely how people actually do it in the real world

If you don’t think about their store as your regular neighborhood bookstore (remember those?) then it makes sense. This is a potential data-mine for Amazon; the information they learn from data collected could make them a lot more money, applied to their entire business, than any incidental product sales that happen there.


Art of Manliness 15oz. Etched Mug

Art of Manliness 15oz. Etched Mug

This is a nice mug. I received it in the mail this week and was surprised by its thickness, and its heft. (I checked the product page and evidently it weighs in at nearly 1.3lbs!) It certianly feels like a premium product, and the etching is deep and crisp. It’s sturdy; I expect it to last a long time.

If you use an Aeropress you know how frustating it can be when a container is too small, or too big. I dislike using the awkward and unsteady funnel to press my coffee into a narrow mug. When I am making coffee for multiple people, I use a measuring cup anyway, but when I am just making a single or double coffee for myself I don’t want to dirty anything extra. It was with this in mind that I immeadiately tested the Art of Manliness mug, and happily it is a perfect fit for the Aeropress! The cherry on top: The lip of the mug has a nice feel when you drink from it. I have a new favoite mug.

Buy The Art of Manliness 15oz. Etched Mug


Disclosure: This mug was a gift from Brett McKay at Art of Manliness.


Windows 10 or OS X? A Mac User Falls For the PC Again →

It’s not surprising that I’ve fallen so hard for Windows 10. For nearly 30 years, the two computing rivals have picked and pulled features from each other. At this point, both Windows 10 and Apple’s upcoming Mac OS X El Capitan have so many nearly identical functions that at times it can feel like playing “Can You Spot the Difference?”

This makes sense, desktop computing is a mature platform. Mature platforms will have substantially the same features. (The “features” of Toyota, Ford, Honda, and other car brands are substantially the same.1)

In fact, even on my Mac, I spend most my time using Google’s services. In most cases, they’re better, and unlike many of Apple’s, they’re easily accessible on Windows and the Web. Google is proving that you don’t need to own the OS to win.

Ah, well, if your main OS is Google, then yeah… use anything with a browser. And kiss privacy goodbye.

But there will always be things I can’t do with an iPhone and a Windows PC, like pick up an incoming call right on my laptop, or easily iMessage my entire family. The iPhone has become the beating heart of so many of our digital lives, and Apple, in what I call the ecosystem trap, has engineered all its own devices to work better with it.

And herin lies the crux of the matter: For most of us it’s not about the desktop platform’s features anymore, or even the resale value, or customer service from the company… it’s about the entire device ecosystem. iPhone and Apple Watch are always going to be better with Mac, and as of today Apple is the only company making the hardware and software for everything from watches and wireless routers, to computers, tablets, and video-streaming TV boxes. It’s hard to compete with that kind of tight integration, the closest anyone else comes is Google, and many choose that ecosystem. As for me, I prefer Apple’s approach, and I’m not the only one:

Apple Unit Sales Q3 2015 Mac sales, represented by the orange line, continue steady growth. via

PC sales early 2015 PC sales continue to see steady decline. via


  1. Luke Wertz makes a good point, saying: “‘The “features” of Toyota, Ford, Honda, and other car brands are substantially the same.’ They’re also strictly regulated.” I think this certainly has much to do with the sameness of vehicles produced from those brands, but I don’t think that accounts for all of it. I think as tools and platforms mature, the various offerings do become more and more similar in their features. A better example, perhaps, is “traditional” watches: Nobody regulates those, but they all do substantially the same thing. A $10 watch isn’t going to tell time worse than a $100,000 one for the vast majority of applications. Yes, desktop platforms are more complicated, but I think we see the same things happening. 


Satanic Group Playing with Fire →

Father James Martin, Societas Iesu:

It’s hard to discern which motivation is stronger in the group: the desire to push back on religious groups who, they apparently feel, have a monopoly on “religious freedom” in the public square, or the desire to troll and stir up trouble. One of my Jesuit friends said that these people are like a “Comment Box come to life,” that is, the worst of snotty comments on religion enacted in real life.

I think this is a very astute comparison. Combox trolls act as if the internet isn’t the “real world” and say things that most would never say face-to-face to another person. In the same way, I suspect that these alleged Satanists do not consider metaphysics to be part of the “real world”.

Of course, Father Martin may be wrong. Perhaps they aren’t playing with fire, but rather setting it deliberately.