Siri's future ambitions detailed in new patent application

A new patent application provides a peek at features that could be on their way to Apple's popular voice assistant, Siri.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
3 min read
A figure from Apple's Siri patent application.
A figure from Apple's Siri patent application USPTO/Apple

What Siri will do next only Apple knows, but we just got a few hints.

A handful of future features headed to the software may have been outed in a new patent application, primarily that the sassy assistant could be headed to Web and e-mail platforms, and eventually help you buy things, control your home thermostat, and weigh in during conversations.

That application, published this morning by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and picked up by Patently Apple, details an "Intelligent Automated Assistant." The filing, dated January 2011, comes some nine months after Apple's acquisition of Siri the company, and includes numerous diagrams of the software in use.

In the application's abstract, Apple describes its invention as a tool that "engages with the user in an integrated, conversational manner using natural language dialogue," while making use of "external services when appropriate to obtain information or perform various actions."

Sound familiar?

That's Siri as we know it, the virtual assistant that translates user voice requests into actions--functionality that first appeared in Siri the app, and later extended to Apple's implementation of it in the iPhone 4S. Some of those external services have been tools like Yelp and Wolfram Alpha.

Where things get interesting is when Apple details where such a tool could be used. "The system can be implemented using any number of different platforms, such as the web, email, smartphone and the like, or any combination thereof," the application reads.

Of course Siri already works with the Safari Web browser and e-mail, but both of those platforms go through the smartphone implementation. The patent suggests Siri could go beyond that, working on "different platforms used by a variety of operating systems."

What's next

On the feature front, the patent application hints at a number of additional functionalities for the assistant, one of which is the capability to make purchases online, something it cannot currently do:

In various embodiments, the intelligent automated assistant systems disclosed herein may be configured or designed to include functionality for automating the application of data and services available over the Internet to discover, find, choose among, purchase, reserve, or order products and services.

It's worth pointing out that Siri can currently pull up things like product pricing information, but that's through Wolfram Alpha, and only pricing through Best Buy.

Perhaps more interesting is this tidbit about the software being able to operate devices "locally or remotely" which Apple offers could be things like "dialing telephones, controlling light and temperature, controlling home security devices," and "playing music or video."

If your phone controlling the temperature of your house freaks you out (that certainly wasn't a factor for this guy), you might not like this other idea from the patent, which involves Siri joining in on text conversations:

For messaging platforms including but not limited to email, instant messaging, discussion forums, group chat sessions, live help or customer support sessions and the like, assistant 1002 may act as a participant in the conversations. Assistant 1002 may monitor the conversation and reply to individuals or the group using one or more the techniques and methods described herein for one-to-one interactions.

That certainly opens up the question on how much deeper Apple's implementation of Siri can go. As it stands, the assistant has been something that's on-demand, appearing only when a user holds the home button for a few seconds. This detail suggests it could evolve into something that plays a more active role within applications.

When introducing Siri at its Let's Talk iPhone event last October, Apple said that the feature was in beta, and that additional features and services would be added later. While Apple hasn't said what exactly these will be, this patent application could provide a glimpse.