The Siri Report: Can You Hear Me Now?

March 14th, 2012

If you can believe Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone ads, Siri is a magical and absolutely brilliant digital personal assistant who can answer all your questions cheerfully, sometimes with an appropriately pithy and even humorous response. If you can believe a certain disgruntled customer from New York City, who recently filed a class-action lawsuit against Apple, Siri is tone deaf, to put it mildly. Reports from Japan indicate Siri support is, a yet, extremely buggy.

All this for something that’s little more than a smart voice recognition scheme.

Well, I suppose it’s all Apple’s fault. You expect them to walk on water. Everything must operate perfectly all the time, and the easy fashion in which people find information with Siri will doubtless result in overconfidence. It doesn’t matter if the fine print on all those ads featuring Siri reveals that the segments were cut down from the originals. It doesn’t matter that Siri still carries a “beta” label, meaning it’s not finished and apt to be buggy. That it works as well as it does, considering the limitations, ought to be amazing.

I also wonder about the silly class-action lawsuits that claim some sort of injury because Siri isn’t perfect. Does the fact that you may have to ask a question more than once, or that Siri takes “her” own sweet time coming up with an answer, somehow hurt your lifestyle or your wellbeing?

But this goes to the issue of the value of such lawsuits. I understand perfectly well that a company whose products cause serious injury or illness ought to be held accountable. But when someone who buys a consumer electronics product claims injury because a feature isn’t perfect, you have to wonder what they expect.

This harkens back to that recent legal settlement with Apple over the alleged Antennagate problems. When it was revealed that you could seriously harm an iPhone 4’s reception quality by holding it in a certain way, that became a scandal. It didn’t matter that other mobile handsets suffer from similar problems if held in a certain way, which differs from model to model. At least Apple came up to the plate and offered a free bumper to anyone who wasn’t satisfied with the way their iconic smartphone worked. Although the offer expired some weeks later, it has been reported that Apple continued to give them away to customers who still had problems.

At the end of the day, the settlement gave disgruntled customers two options: A free bumper, worth about $30, or $15 in cash. In other words, they got nothing more than they would have received had they simply asked for a free bumper. Indeed, Apple actually offered a selection that included third-party cases. The settlement only offers Apple’s brand, unless you take cash. At the same time, it’s a sure thing that the legal team that represented those complainers got healthy cash settlements. But that’s how such things usually work.

To me at least, the Siri lawsuit seems to have even less of a chance for settlement, though I suppose you can always find a lawyer willing to chase Apple in the hope of a huge payday. Maybe Apple would just settle and not be bothered, since they are devoting so much of their attention to suing competitors for alleged patent infringement.

As to Siri, my experiences so far have been decent. I understand that it’s beta and I’m not expecting miracles. Besides, there is no provision to train the recognition process, although I gather it improves over time as the software learns your voice, your accent, and your various speech inflections.

I would think that my speech is reasonably clear, considering my background as a broadcaster. Most vestiges of my regional accent are gone, though I expect speech experts will hear things that I do not hear. No matter. That means that my verbal patterns ought to be easy to recognize. But I would wonder about someone with a strong regional accent. The person who filed that Siri lawsuit is from Brooklyn, NY. Maybe Siri doesn’t understand “Brooklynese,” The same may be true for someone who normally converses in another language and thus may pronounce common words differently. Notice that Apple has been careful in rolling out Siri support to different countries.

Here’s a sample of a typical voice recognition defect: I have a close relative with a “z” in his last name. I have a business contact with a similar last name that has an “s” in it. Siri insists on “hearing” an “s” when I recite my relative’s name, even though I stretch pronunciation of the proper letter. Thus I am constantly being switched to the wrong entry in my contact list. I suppose this is understandable. More general requests, however, seem to deliver reasonably rapid and accurate results.

But remember that Siri is essentially the front end to a search engine. If the information is not on your iPhone 4s, Siri will go online to find it, with varying degrees of success. When I asked Siri, for example, to tell me where Eden’s Grill, a great Mediterranean restaurant in Phoenix, was located, I got the correct answer right away. Unfortunately, Siri was flummoxed when I inquired about the location of a nearby restaurant, Chompies, which is where I actually asked the question. The staff was still slightly amused.

Maybe I’m just a pushover, but it’s still easy to take a liking to Siri. She identifies me with a nickname, even, “UFO Man.” I’m sure most of you know why.

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2 Responses to “The Siri Report: Can You Hear Me Now?”

  1. Peter says:

    I understand that it’s beta […]

    You know, I keep hearing this. But when was the last time you saw a “beta” product advertised as heavily as Apple advertises Siri?

    Apple says, “It’s great! It’s wonderful! It’s groundbreaking!” and when it doesn’t live up to the hype, “Well, it’s beta. What do you expect?”

    If the information is not on your iPhone 4s […]

    Actually, if the information is on your iPhone 4s, you’re still out of luck.

    A few months ago, a batch of us were going to McDonalds and one of our salespeople asked me to pick her up some Chicken McNuggets with barbecue sauce. Since I occasionally have a mind like a steel sieve, I pulled out my trusty iPhone 4s to make a note of it. My compatriot said, “You can’t use Siri to do that?” So I turned on Siri and said, “Jen’s order is a 6 piece Chicken McNuggets with barbecue sauce.” Siri transcribed it perfectly into the Notes app. Score one for Siri!

    He then said, “Can Siri find it?” So I pulled up Siri and said, “Siri, what is Jen’s order?” After a brief delay, Siri did a look-up on the Internet. Wrong answer, Siri. Just out of curiousity, I went to the iPhone’s search screen and said, “Jen’s order.” It found it perfectly.

    So if it’s on your phone, that doesn’t mean Siri will find it.

    But remember that Siri is essentially the front end to a search engine.

    Actually, I recently ran across an interesting issue that happens with Siri and Android’s search.

    I was having car problems. Nothing serious–the cover for the underside of the engine had come loose and was dragging. Unfortunately, it was impossible to really drive to the dealership to get it fixed. I’d lock it down, drive about 100 years and it would come loose. I finally decided that this was silly and, since I have AAA, I’d call and have them tow me. After all, according to Siri, I was only 5.2 miles from the car dealer.

    Of course, that’s as the crow flies. When you pull up the Maps application, you discover that it’s actually 7.2 miles. Since AAA offers free towing for the first 7 miles, I figured I’d limp ahead another half-mile or so.

    When I got to the office, I was recounting how annoying this was. “Siri lied to me!” My boss–an Android aficionado–pulled out his HTC EVO 4G and did the same request and got similar results. The closest dealer was 7.6 miles but when you actually asked for directions, it came out different.

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