October 22, 2014

Siri As Literature

Siri: “My end user agreement does not include marriage.”

In the New York Times, Judith Newman has a wonderful essay on the relationship between her autistic 13-year-old son Gus and Siri. Gus likes to talk – a lot – about turtles and weather patterns; Siri doesn’t mind the odd topics and has all the time in the world.

What’s also remarkable about Siri is the care which SRI and Apple have taken to write good responses to garbage queries. This is the Eliza problem: if you allow open-ended input to a program, then eventually people will test the limits of the system. You’d better have a good answer to

Siri: fuck this shit!

and to

Frboz grbz!

What’s cool is that Siri winds up with great answers to wild questions. Did you know you can ask Siri

Siri: what planes are above me right now?

I didn’t, either. But because it’s in the New York Times, you know now. When I tried, Siri answered:

Someone asked me that recently. Here are the planes above you.

Someone asked me that recently. Lovely detailing, it only takes a second, and yet it somehow sells the whole thing.

Incidentally, I recently switched Siri to Australian English; so far, she still understands me, but she’s got an interesting new voice.