By | December 11, 2023
The Apple Watch Series 9 in aluminum (left) and stainless steel (right)

Apple usually adds new health-oriented features to the Apple Watch. Temperature sensing came with last year’s Apple Watch Series 8, for example, 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 aims to make it easier to find and log health data on the Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2. A new update is rolling out 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 officially rolling out to the Series 9 and Ultra 2. It’s exclusive to those two watches as they’re both powered by Apple’s new S9 chip, which allows them to process certain Siri requests locally rather than sending the requests to the cloud.

The update sees Siri evolve at a time when there has been an unprecedented focus on AI and virtual assistants thanks to the rise of generative AI, or AI that can create conversational responses (though not always correct ones) in response to prompts. Siri has been criticized for falling behind rivals like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant over the past decade, but the update indicates that Apple is considering new uses for its digital assistant. Above all else, Siri’s new health smarts can solve a big problem. Even in 2023, the myriad health statistics our wearables collect can still be difficult to analyze.

Read more: Best smartwatches 2023

“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 really brings us closer and closer to that goal.”

Siri will initially be able to respond to requests for 20 different health data types on the Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2, based on data from the past week. It includes questions about progress on your activity rings, your number of steps, breathing rate per night, how many stairs you’ve climbed, 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. As for logging data, you can ask Siri to record stats like your weight, whether your period has started, and your medications.

According to Caldbeck, Siri support for health-related questions on the watch has been a much-requested feature. But the company waited for Series 9 and Ultra 2 because it wanted to ensure that such requests could be processed locally with low latency. This means that the data does not have to leave your watch for the request to be fulfilled.

Katie Skinner, senior manager of user privacy technology at Apple, said the company’s health products are designed with four privacy principles in mind: data minimization; processing on the device; 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 has really changed is how we apply them, the techniques with which we can apply restrictions and the threat landscape,” she said of the privacy principles. Skinner said that when Apple applies a principle like data minimization to its products, Apple looks at places where data can be exposed as various threats arise over time, whether it’s on the device or over the network.

The Siri update has the potential to make the almost dizzying number of health metrics your Apple Watch collects 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 that the Health app is difficult 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 kind of data should be available on the Series 9 almost immediately. Being able to find bits of information without having to tap, type or swipe is especially useful on screens as small as the Apple Watch.

“But really never before have users been able to access this data without even touching 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 begin 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 technology behind its Bard chatbot into Google Assistant, enabling it to perform tasks such as 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 future Samsung devices.

Apple hasn’t said anything about bringing generative AI to Siri; it usually avoids linking its products directly to larger industry-wide trends and competing products. But Siri’s ability to handle health-related questions could make the Apple Watch a smarter health tracker, assuming it works as Apple intended. It feels like a step toward a more sophisticated health assistant, like the one Bloomberg reports Apple could be working on.

Apple never discusses future products before announcing them. But Caldbeck says Apple will continue to invest in Siri’s health capabilities.

“We’re always looking for ways to improve and enhance our features,” Caldbeck said when asked if Apple plans to add support for more types of health metrics. “So we’ll definitely continue to explore adding additional data types and offering more accessibility to our health features through Siri.”

Editor’s note: CNET uses an AI engine to generate some stories. For more, see this post.

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