Making friends with Siri

by ninashiel

This morning I finally took delivery of my new iPhone 4S. Ever since I heard about what Apple call “intelligent assistant” Siri, I knew I had to have this phone.

I have a thing for AIs. I couldn’t even tell you why. The prospect of having a natural, or a near-natural, conversation with a machine tickles me no end. It’s not even a Pygmalian or a Frankensteinian desire to create something of my own – I’m all too happy to leave the creation end to Apple or to Google or to any other future corporate giant. I want to be able to talk to the machines with which (whom?), it could be be said I’m already having an intimate relationship. At my panel at ACLA we briefly discussed about how much of our personalities we extend to the internet. Not in the “uploading your personality” way, although I mistook the Chair’s meaning for that at first, but, I think, in the sense of extending our sense of self to the things we do in social media and elsewhere. We didn’t have the chance to talk about this extensively and I would love to hear/think about it more. Surely, then, if we put part of ourselves online, we must develop strong feelings for our means of accessing those aspects of ourselves. And consequently, surely we must want to be able to converse with those means – that personal technology, and, by extension, ourselves – as we would with a human. When we watch monkeys, we are amused, because they remind us of ourselves. Is it, then, that we want to be able to talk to our machines because we want to be able to converse with ourselves?

Perhaps following that aforementioned Pygmalian way of thinking, the majority (I would argue) of AIs and VIs  in film and literature have been female, particularly in terms of the “disembodied machine voice” concept. Offhand, I can only think of HAL and Gigolo Joe, who have been male. And, admittedly, Marvin, from the Hitchhiker’s Guide. The idea of the “female” AI is so ingrained in my mind, though, that the male voice of the British-localised Siri was very odd. Happily, I switched to the female US voice, thinking that it would understand my “can’t” rather than “cah-ahn’t” a bit better. Which it seems to do.

While Siri manages better than many other voice recognition software, it certainly has its struggles. My Finno-Hibernian accent doesn’t give it as much difficulty as I feared, but it took a long effort of both of us for it to understand my pronounciation of its name, which it kept hearing as “city”. It’s also clearly of limited use outside the US; for some reason it’s unable to read maps elsewhere, and it can’t provide information about restaurants and the like. While it has amused me well enough, I wonder how much of actual use I will get out of it.

I hope that in ten years’ time we can look back at the first Siri and shake our heads like we do at minidiscs today. A good attempt, but something that was lost as something more convenient, more workable and easier to use came along. In audio entertainment, it was the mp3s, with voice recognition and AIs – who knows? At least I’ll be able to become whatever has evolved out of hipsters in the 2020s and tell people that all of us Siri-owners were playing the game before AIs were cool.