Why Siri Can’t Answer Every Question

BlogHer Original Post

The iPhone application known as Siri is not good at providing female sexual and reproductive health information. As discovered by Jill Filipovic and Amanda Marcotte and illustrated at AmandiTalks you can get a good understanding of the problem.

Image Credit: indigo_girl

Siri will either fess up that she can’t help you or she’ll get snippy.

If you are a guy, Siri has got you covered. Literally. She will help the fellas get their hands on condoms, Viagra or listings to escort services at the neighborhood level.

I watch in befuddlement as the basic facts and concerns about this story got drowned out by misleading headlines and heated words by fanboys and girls who were angry that the questions were even brought up.

Some of the fanboy/girl responses can be summed up as “Duh, what do you think Beta means?”

To me, a Beta product means there are problems and concerns that need to be brought to the attention of the the vendor/creators. Criticizing users reporting a problem? Not at all helpful.

What Is Siri?

I’m not going to assume you know or don’t know what makes up the Apple application. If you do know skip down to the next section. 

Siri is actually a collection of software programs that perform the functions of a souped up personal digital assistant; an old school PDA.

Everything Siri says has been scripted by a person. There is no original thought. None. Zippo. No artificial intelligence whatsoever.

Next, there is the programing language that structures how Siri operates. Think of it as the framework that guides the responses. 

For example, when you ask about the temperature tomorrow morning in Kentucky there is a long decision list that kicks into play;  understanding the question, seeking the appropriate resource, how long should Siri wait before giving a verbal response to the user, displaying the information. All of those tasks have to be constructed by programmers.

Then there are the various databases Siri accesses to obtain information. On the Apple Siri FAQ page it does state that it uses Wolfram Alpha and Yelp as informational sources. It also uses mapping web sites and Wikipedia. There may be others services in the background.

So, The Problem With Siri Is…

Voice recognition + scripted responses from programmers + access to limited function or incomplete databases = a bunch of questions that Siri does not have the ability to answer.

Nuance. Complexity. Context. Siri just doesn’t understand much of our world.

It isn’t just female sexuality issues. Lauren Barack at The Digital Shift has a post about the frustrations her daughter experiences when trying to use Siri to learn about space. 

Siri has some features of a directory service. It is not a portal to all information.

So What About the Bias?

Siri is the sum of her creators and resources. Her programing team decides what Siri can say and what to pay attention to from the user. They also added a a bit of humor and snark comments in her response lists.

That can be funny if you are asking questions about HAL 9000. Not so funny if you need help and assistance.

I have no proof of this but I would suspect that many of her programmer could be men. Perhaps not all of them but enough to embed a certain masculine point of view about sex and sexual health issues.

Get condom, obtain partner, perform sex.  It is a linear process.

Women sexual health and reproductive information is not linear. There are choices, decisions, considerations, levels of information.

Yelp wasn’t designed for that purpose. Certainly not Wolfram Alpha. There is a resource gap between what users want and what Apple and certain public databases can provide.

Dang It! Just Who Do We Blame?

Beta or not Siri is functioning in the real world. Apple needs to catch up.

One of the things we need to be concerned about is sloppy tech reporting by certain mainstream news media. Many articles were nothing more than headline link bait or copying from Jill and Amanda without attribution.

No matter what the access point of information you still need to question what is being presented to you.

We as humans have responsibilities too. When we cede our powers of critical thinking to an electronic device we will have problems.  Not only asking who provides the information but is it verified? Are some of the listings sponsored or advertisements? Is it in Apple’s future to charge vendors to post listings via Siri?

Do we trust a private, for-profit company to perform that type of service?

Do we need more female programmers? That answer is yes.

Perhaps a group of of imaginative people create a sexual health and reproduction database?

Now that would be kinda cool.

Gena Haskett is a BlogHer Contributing Editor. My Blogs: Out On The Stoop and Create Video Notebook


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