Apple typically adds new health-oriented features to the Apple Watch. Temperature sensing arrived with last year's Apple Watch Series 8, for instance, and blood oxygen measurements debuted on the 2020-era Series 6.
But in 2023, Apple is taking a different approach. Instead of adding more sensors, it's aiming to make finding and logging health data easier on the Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2. A new update launching on Monday will bring the ability to ask Siri for health data points from the watch for the first time, a seemingly minor change but one that could make Apple's smartwatch a more capable health tracker.
The update was announced in September and was previously available in beta, but it's now rolling out to the Series 9 and Ultra 2. It's exclusive to these two watches because they're both powered by Apple's new S9 chip, which enables them to process certain Siri requests locally rather than the requests being sent to the cloud.
The update shows that Siri is evolving at a time when there's been unprecedented attention on AI and virtual assistants thanks to the rise of generative AI, or AI that can create conversational (though not always accurate) answers in response to prompts. Siri has been criticized for falling behind competitors like Amazon's Alexa and the Google Assistant over the past decade, but the update indicates Apple is thinking about new uses for its digital helper. Above all else, Siri's new health smarts could solve a big problem. Even in 2023, the myriad health statistics our wearables gather can still be difficult to parse.
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"A big part of our focus is making health data accessible," said Deidre Caldbeck, Apple's senior director of product marketing for its Apple Watch and health divisions. "And so we think this feature certainly brings us more and more closer to that goal."
Siri will initially be able to answer requests for 20 different health data types on the Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2, based on data from the past week. That includes questions about progress on your Activity Rings, your step count, nightly respiratory rate, how many flights of stairs you've climbed, last night's sleep and more. It can also answer questions about third-party health devices connected to the health app, such as glucose and blood pressure monitors. When it comes to logging data, you'll be able to ask Siri to register statistics like your weight, whether your period has started and your medications.
According to Caldbeck, Siri support for health-related queries on the watch has been a highly requested feature. But the company waited for the Series 9 and Ultra 2 because it wanted to make sure such requests could be processed locally with low latency. That means data doesn't have to leave your watch for the request to be fulfilled.
Katie Skinner, senior manager for user privacy engineering at Apple, said the company's health products are designed with four privacy principles in mind: data minimization; on-device processing; transparency; and control and security. These principles are broad enough to apply to new and updated products as the industry changes, as evidenced by Apple's decision to wait until the Apple Watch could process Siri requests locally before supporting health requests.
"What's really changed is how we apply them, the technologies that we're able to apply mitigations with, and the threat landscape," she said of the privacy principles. Skinner shared that when applying a principle like data minimization to its products, Apple looks at places where data may be exposed as different threats arise over time, whether it's on-device or over the network.
The Siri update has the potential to make the almost dizzying number of health metrics your Apple Watch gathers more palatable. And that's important, because for some Apple users, finding health data points hasn't been as easy as it should be. Reddit threads detail user complaints about the Health app being hard to navigate and clunky.
It took four taps on my iPhone to find my average daily exercise minutes, for example. But with the update, that type of data should be available on Series 9 almost instantly. Being able to find bits of information without having to tap, type or swipe is particularly useful on screens as small as the Apple Watch's.
"But really never before have users been able to access this data without even tapping their screen," Caldbeck said.
Siri's upgrade comes at a time when both AI assistants and health apps are getting smarter and more sophisticated. Fitbit, one of Apple's oldest competitors in the fitness tracking space, will start using generative AI to answer certain questions and produce specific custom charts, as part of its Fitbit Labs program next year.
Google, which owns Fitbit, is also infusing the tech behind its Bard chatbot into the Google Assistant, enabling it to perform tasks like writing social media posts for photos and summarizing important emails. Samsung also recently announced Galaxy AI, likely an umbrella term for new AI-powered features coming to its devices.
Apple hasn't said anything about bringing generative AI to Siri; it typically avoids linking its products directly to larger industry-wide trends and competing products. But Siri's ability to address health-related queries could go a long way in making the Apple Watch a smarter health tracker, provided it works the way Apple intends. It feels like a step toward a more sophisticated health assistant, like the one that Bloomberg reports Apple could be working on.
Apple never discusses future products before announcing them. But Caldbeck says Apple will keep investing in Siri's health capabilities.
"We're always looking for ways to improve and enhance our features," Caldbeck said when asked whether Apple plans to add support for more types of health metrics. "So we will certainly continue to explore adding additional data types and offering more accessibility to our health features through Siri."
Editors' note: CNET is using an AI engine to help create some stories. For more, see this post.