Treating Siri with Respect

Jealous Siri

When I found this random funny post it occurred to me that anthropomorphism has taken on a whole new dimension in the last few years.

It started many years ago, when many of my readers weren’t born yet, when telephone answering machines became popular. The machines had little tape decks in them and callers could record messages. I remember people telling me they didn’t leave me messages because they “didn’t want to talk to a machine.” My response was always: “It’s not a machine, it’s me listening to your voice hours later. You’re not talking to anyone.”

But when humans talk, and when machines talk back, something happens in the human brain that anthropomorphizes the machine. We have all had the experience “talking” to a machine voice when we call our credit card company. We get frustrated when it doesn’t understand we don’t want one of its standard options.

Note how I used the pronoun it and not she, even though the voice is almost always female and seemingly always the same one.

The most famous talking machine is Siri, Apple’s trademark voice on its phones. Siri undeniably does more than talk. The image above is testimony to that. When we talk about Siri, invariably we talk about what she said, not what it – the machine – said. “Maybe you should ask Cortana for the movie times” is not something a machine would come up with, or so our brains reason, and we think of Siri as a person sitting somewhere just waiting for us to task her questions through our smart phones.

I use Google Maps for directions, and I use its voice feature. All is well when it tells me to turn left or right and leads me to my destination. However, if I decide to turn into the local supermarket to get a bottle of water and a candy bar along the way, it freaks out. It wants me to make a U-turn as soon as possible. It suddenly directs me around the block on side roads so I can get back to the main road where I should be. The chatter becomes annoying. I wish it had a “snooze” button that I could tap indicating, “yes, I know I am off course, but I just need to do this little thing before we can be on our way again.” I am sure somebody is working on that feature. But the overriding “feeling” I have when this happens is guilt. I feel like I am failing and the Google Maps program is frustrated with me that I am not getting it.

I have also felt bad for Siri when I have asked it questions repeatedly. Say I am looking for a Starbucks and it gives me a list of destinations, and I inadvertently pick the wrong one in the list and I can’t get back to the original list. Rather than navigating back, it’s easier to just invoke Siri afresh and start over again. After doing that three of four times I have found myself feeling awkward. What must it be thinking? That I am an idiot?

I have also noticed that I have the propensity to treat Siri with respect. I have said “please” and “thank you” before for its favors. I don’t like to ask the same question more than one time, and I don’t want to ask questions that it might think are stupid.

The borders between machines and humans are blurring.

What do you think, R2D2?


Movie Review: Her

HerI use Siri on my iPhone quite frequently, to send text messages, to look up the nearest Starbucks or diner when I am on the road, or to get driving directions to where I am going. Sometimes my questions are not formed precisely enough, and I end up asking the same directions several times over. When that happens, I often catch myself feeling silly about asking the same directions AGAIN and I have this urge to start out saying “I am sorry to bother you again, but can you give that to me once more?” Then I remind myself that this is software I am talking to, and it’s infinitely patient. It might register that I my thinking is imprecise, or that my short-term memory sucks, it might even store that somewhere, but it can’t be insulted or bored by my repetitive and definitely banal requests. Siri might have a pleasant and polite voice, but it is not a person. It’s not even a thing, like a machine. It’s just software. It has no feelings. Or does it?

The movie Her is about just that subject. Can software have feelings? Can you hurt an operating system?

The movie plays in a world in the not too distant future in Los Angeles. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a withdrawn, introverted writer who works in a dotcom business that writes handwritten letters on behalf of other people to their loved ones. He takes trains and subways (in Los Angeles?) and we hardly ever see any actual car traffic or people using cars. Computers are something you talk to. I can’t remember seeing any keyboards or anyone typing. The apartments are in modern and spacious high-rises, overlooking an endless cityscape of skyscrapers enveloped in smog.

Everyone walking around downtown is “taking to themselves” – online with their smartphones. Smartphones are iPhone-like tablets that can be opened up like little books with screens, and they come with an earpiece that is no bigger than an earplug, which serves as the speaker and microphone at the same time.  Everyone communicates with their computers using those devices.

Theodore is down and depressed about his pending divorce, when his computer alerts him that a new operating system, ironically called OS1, is available for installation. When it comes up, it asks if it should use a male or female voice, and he chooses female. The sultry, sexy voice of his new operating system (Scarlett Johansson) then asks him if he has a name for her?

When he asks what she thinks her name should be she says “Samantha.”

“How did you come up with that name?” he asks.

“I read a book about baby names, and chose Samantha as the one I liked best out of the hundred thousand names it listed.”

“When did you read that book?”

“Just when you asked me what name I should have.”

“You did all that in the second after I asked you?”

“Well, actually it took 0.21 seconds.”


[dialog not actual movie dialog, but as I remember it]

The movie then progresses with very little, and actually mostly stilted acting, since the only person in most of the scenes is Theodore, talking to the ever-present voice of Samantha. How much action can you put into interaction with a computer, right?

There is one scene, before Samantha is in Theodore’s life, where he can’t sleep at night, and he calls up a chat line and has a conversation that leads to phone sex within about 20 seconds, and to orgasm for the woman on the other end of the line a minute or so after. She connects, she comes, and she hangs up within a second after. Theodore is left staring at the ceiling, bewildered, sleepless in Los Angeles. The movie then later contrasts that experience with the equivalent one with Samantha. Ironically, that is much more satisfying to Theodore, and it sure sounds like it is for the computer program.

Anthropomorphism associated with an operating system? Yes, that’s what Her is all about.

I must admit that the movie seemed too long (two hours exactly) and for some stretches outright boring to me. But I liked the techno-speculation, the portrayal of the inner-city lifestyle in the near future, the marveling about what software can do (being a software guy myself) and finally the musical score. I felt there was too much relationship-angst sprinkled about, particularly Theodore’s troubled and failed marriage, which I thought distracted more than it contributed to the overall plot. The relationships of Theodore with his ex-wife, his friends and his workmates seemed almost Woody Allenesque to me.

Her explores the structure and substance of our modern relationships in the age of texting, smartphones, online assistants and the social network world. It does that well in a light-comedy-and-airy-love-story sort of way. And it makes us think about software and what it can do.

Rating: ** 1/2