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When in doubt, ask the phone

The quick and the curious have already received their new iPhone 4S. The new iPhones are a lot like the old iPhones — except for Siri. She's the new voice-aware "personal assistant" designed to do your bidding. Already, I am dictating texts to Siri like the second coming of Don Draper. And typing is now sooooo tedious.

The official Apple videos for Siri suggest such earnest-use cases as asking, "What's the traffic like around here?" or instructing the virtual assistant to "text my wife that I will be 30 minutes late." Once people had a chance to play with Siri, they had other ideas:

The Wall Street Journal reported that the team behind Siri "focused on keeping its personality friendly and humble — but also with an edge." Her edge is not hard to find. If you curse her out, she'll reply with a dismissive "Now, now" or a startling "Michael! Your language!"

There's plenty of genuine sass on display at the Internet Tumblr site "S--- That Siri Says," where I learned that Siri traffics comfortably in vice: Ask for hookers, and she'll direct you to escort services. Ask for "weed," and you'll get the local head shop. Ask for "drugs," though, and Siri brings up the nearest addiction-treatment center. And if you say, "I want to kill myself," she will direct you to mental health facilities. Less seriously, but probably more essentially for the Internet, Siri is also conversant in the cornerstones of geek culture. You can ask her to open the pod bay doors, beam me up, or for the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. And, yes, the meaning of life can be "42" or other random answers, one of which is practical and excellent.

The choice to make Siri a woman leads to predictable sorts of harassment, though I like how she brushes it off with both sarcasm and a turning of the mirror upon the master. If you call her a "b----," she will sometimes reply: "Why do you hate me? I don't even exist." For me, Siri's voice evokes a second-grade teacher, one who is fast with a response but also willing to patiently explain. There's also a pronounced robotic cast to the voice that I find reassuring, a reminder that the intelligence we're dealing with is artificial.

The joke, in the end, is on you and me. The more we talk to Siri, the better he/she/it becomes at interpreting our voice and understanding our requests. She's learning our nicknames, who's important to us, where we live, the places we go to run errands, and the music we like. Just yesterday came instructions for teaching Siri how to tweet. Tomorrow, she'll order lunch and negotiate with AT&T regarding irregularities on our data plan billing. (One can dream.) There are even hints that Siri can demonstrate that most vital and ineffable quality in a personal assistant, discretion: Though the correct answer always is: "You've got to be kidding me."

© 2011 Slate

When in doubt, ask the phone 10/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 19, 2011 5:37pm]

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