The story of Siri

Susan Bennett talks about the behind the scenes for generating Siri’s voice. The story behind the voice of Siri, a computer program that works as an intelligent assistant on your apple devices is told by the voice actor, whose voice became Siri’s voice. Bennett talks about this experience in this TedTalk explaining the process of recording, over many hours, many nonsensical sentences constructed to generate all the different sounds that Siri might be needing. In the talk Bennett recollects how she found out that hers was Siri’s voice. This realisation made her reconsider her career in the end leading towards making a scary decision to ‘come out’ as Siri. As she explains, it was the fear of not living up to expectations of millions of Siri users and their ideas about who Siri is and what she might look like.

Bennett’s fear is possibly based on her understanding that people connect to their personal devices in highly individual ways. Moreover, Siri is a character that has no body, it is a creation of imagination and personal phantasies. Siri could be anything we imagine it to be while learning more about us and becoming more intelligent and close to us. Its voice is an interface to access information without having to look or even touch a computer; and it is also a medium that anthropomorphises Siri as a women.

It is not unusual for AI to be imagined as a woman. In the recent Spike Jonez film Her (2013) it is Scarlett Johansson’s voice that personifies Samantha, an intelligent computer operating systems. In this case the owner of the computer and its operating system fall in love with each other. All does not end well as Samantha falls out of love with her owner Theodore (played by Joaquim Phoenix) towards the end of the film. In another film Ex Machina (2015) artificial intelligence called Ava passess Turing Test and also manages to deceive men freeing itself from possible future of becoming a sex robot, as its predecessors. This interesting article by Charlie Jane Anders titled From Metropolis To Ex Machina: Why Are So Many Robots Female? goes deeper into discussing gendered representations of thinking machines.

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Her (2013) dir. Spike Jonez

Bennett’s coming out is a great story, and it is a complex one too. It is part of the celebrity culture, yet here the celebrity is a highly intelligent operating system, and Bennett admits herself that she had become famous only accidentally. Her fear to ‘live up to expectations’ reflects certain ideas about women that we have today, especially when they are part of techno cultures. Perfect example of this is represented in the Microsoft decision to use Cortana, a synthetic intelligence from Halo series, to name and represent personal assistant application in Windows 10. 15 things that you can ask Cortana to do include setting reminders, using natural language search, or identifying songs among others. Hard not to admit the sexism present in this marketing strategy.

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There is no end to this story. Another observation of certain values inscribed in the operating systems that are present in everyday culture. What kind of intimacy this inscribes is immediately visible and not unexpected. As women we are facing it everyday: exclusion, objectification, sexualisation. Is it confusing for artificial intelligence? What kind of intelligence does it produce? Again, I am reminded of another Microsoft experiment gone wrong only a month or so agao where the Microsoft operated Twitter bot Tay returned many racist and sexist tweets. Is it confusing? Is it surprising? Can they see the pattern? Perhaps our computers know us best and they are unforgivably honest in revealing our truth to us.

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