Siri

Yesterday my iPad was upgraded to iOS6, which includes Siri, my new “intelligent personal assistant” and last night I spent a couple of hours trying it out. I didn’t intend to spend so much time fooling around with it — I was actually trying to read and get some other things done, but I kept coming back to it over and over, asking Siri to do things for me.

When Siri was first added to the iPhone, I was a little jealous, having just upgraded my Android phone. I like using voice as an alternative to keyboard on my phone for doing things like entering search terms, but I knew Siri went beyond simple voice recognition and used natural language to understand how to interact with various apps on the device, and to respond in natural language. I wasn’t sure that I needed it, but I definitely wanted a chance to fool around with it.

I had seen Apple’s television commercials for Siri, like the one where Zooey Deschanel spends a rainy day in her pajamas, chatting with Siri, dancing around and ordering tomato soup. I found this ad really annoying, but remarkably effective. I found myself wanting to call a restaurant to have tomato soup delivered, although that seems ridiculous. Would a restaurant deliver a single serving of soup, and what would they charge for that? And I keep a couple of cans of Campbell’s on hand anyway, part of my emergency comfort food supply.

So last night I tried chatting casually with Siri, and it wasn’t quite as easy as it looks in the ads. I wanted her to send an e-mail message to my daughter but she couldn’t get the name right, misspelling both first and last name. I found that saying the name and then spelling it slowly and clearly, something which works great with a human, didn’t work at all with Siri. She just tried to make words out of the sounds of the letters.

Then I tried asking her to search for some books, which I asked in this form: FIND THE BOOK MIDDLEMARCH. She didn’t really care what title I asked for — she just kept telling me that she found twelve bookstores and six of them were fairly close to me, which sounded to me like “Go ask someone who cares.”

Also, some of the bookstores that she recommended are either no longer in business or not bookstores at all, like the listing for Verizon, or are listed in an unhelpful manner, like Follett Corp, which is really the Gordon College Bookstore. I found it odd that they list the street address but not the city name, it’s not obvious how to find more information about these bookstores. I guess the presumption is that you get a list of nearby bookstores and just click through to the map without checking for any information about the store first, like whether it actually is a bookstore, is still in business, is open today, and would be likely to sell the kind of books you’re looking for.

Eventually I figured out that I needed to install the Yelp app, which improved things a bit, but if I were just trying to find nearby bookstores, I’d do much better to just open the Yelp app and search for bookstores near my current location or by zip code.

I did find a few things I like. I tried having her add reminders, although my life is so boring that I had to make things up. Now my calendar for next week is full of things like Lunch with the Queen of England. I also tried asking her to play music, and that worked really well. Saying PLAY GOLDEN SLUMBERS was much easier than having to deal with the Music app.

I tried asking her to find a phone number for me, but she kept telling me she couldn’t make phone calls on this device. I tried just saying SEARCH ATOMIC CAFE PHONE NUMBER, emphasizing the SEARCH which I hoped would send her to Google, but as soon as she heard the word PHONE she wanted to make it clear she couldn’t make phone calls. I found myself saying “Listen, I don’t want you to make a call, just get me the phone number!” but she wouldn’t do it.

And that was the problem — I found myself getting annoyed at Siri and what seemed to be to be her deliberate obtuseness and passive aggressive behavior. It’s the Eliza Effect, the tendency to unconsciously react to technological beings as if they were living beings even when you know they’re not. I have a real problem driving with my GPS because of the way she says “recalculating” in an annoyed voice which makes me feel stupid and defensive. (Note that I find it impossible to refer to the GPS as “it” — I always think of it as “her” and find myself saying things like “How does she expect me to make a right turn here when the road is blocked off and there’s a Police Officer waving me to the left???” Although I know she can’t see what I see, I hate the way she’s so sure of herself all the time. I know there are nicer voices available, but I can’t quite bring myself to make the change. It’s like I have something to prove to her, or to myself. Or maybe I just feel the confrontation of replacing her — even though I know that’s ridiculous.

Now I feel like my relationship with Siri has gotten off to a bad start, and although I feel like we ought to learn to work together, I really just want to avoid her. I did eventually look at the Help to understand what kind of tasks she can do, and what commands work for her, but I don’t know if I will ever feel comfortable working with either the unnamed GPS woman or Siri. They both just seem so rude to me.

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