Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

Getting Serious With Siri


Our robotic overlords must be delighted by the way iPhone users have taken to Siri.

I met her on Friday. But apparently, she was talking to me before we were formally introduced: When S arrived at the rail station to pick me up, Siri had been reading my text messages aloud and sending me his responses.

S was delighted. "Listen to this," he said to me. "Siri, who is my wife?"

"Which one?" Siri responded.

I raised an eyebrow. "Am I missing something here?"

"No. Hold on a sec." S tried again, "Siri, who is my wife."

Siri took a minute. "Hold on," she said. "Calling Krystal D'Costa." (Good idea—I might know the answer, Siri.) "Do you want me to save this relationship, S?" I looked over quizzically at S, who laughed and agreed that she should, which she presumably took to mean she should update her records.

"Siri, where is my wife?" he continued, obviously enjoying this. I groaned inwardly, knowing full well where this was going. Siri was not quite sure who she should be looking for though. "I don't know who that is," she responded. Not deterred in the least, S asked again. "Looking for Krystal D'Costa. I can't do that. You're not logged into your Find My Friends account."

He's been pestering me to create a Find My Friends account for a few days, acknowledging my discomfort at being "tracked"—which is why my public activity on FourSquare is at a minimum (I'm not ignoring those of you who have tried to add me; I'm just not very active over there)—but enthusiastically endorsing it as a trip tool ... because apparently I wander away from the group often? I'm not sure. In any case, Siri took a backseat as our conversation shifted gears, but she's apparently a new fixture in our relationship—it's Siri, after all, who calls me and texts me now—so we'll have plenty of time for her to get used to the idea that S has a wife.

Siri, it seems, is getting to know us as we are getting to know her. But she's also doing something else: She's helping iPhone users comfortably navigate the next step in our relationship with technology. It's no secret we're moving toward greater technological integration; it's exciting, but it also takes work. Very few people are formally educated in the technology they use. While it seems that we have been moving inexorably forward, seamlessly adopting the latest technological trends and strategies, each adoption has happened in socially curated phases that are characterized by varying degrees of anxiety and excitement.

Siri is a personal assistant application for iOS developed by Siri, Inc., a spin-off from SRI International. Her roots can be traced to DARPA's Perceptive Assistant That Learns (PAL) program and SRI International's corresponding Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes (CALO) program. This heritage creates a powerfully intuitive platform that appears to reason, learn, and respond. In short, she does all the things that have tended to make us uncomfortable about getting close to technology. Siri is science fiction realized: she gives form to WALL-E's Auto and I, Robot's VIKI—without the "protect humanity even if it means destroying the human race in the process because humans don't really know what's good for them" angle. Yet. (I mean, if she's really intuitive, who knows what she might accomplish.)

So why does she work? We're culturally primed not to trust programs that behave like AI, which ceased to be portrayed as innocent helpers around the time The Jetsons, our favorite tech savvy family, went off the air. This is where those socially curated phases I mentioned comes into play. The rise of social and mobile applications have primed us to be more open about our lives, more willing to share information, and more adept at transacting the business of daily life on-the-go. These things were difficult in their own way—location check-ins, for example, meant being willing to share where you are, what you're doing, and who you're with. Gradually, the convenience of mobile banking or shopping replaced the concerns over privacy and security—that is to say, concerns were addressed in a way that was deemed acceptable to users. We're comfortable. And we walk a fine line between independence and dependence. And perhaps we like it.

Siri does what we've been doing all along: she manages the business of daily life while we're on-the-go. But she gives us the sense that someone else is involved—that someone else cares about the business of our daily life, which is a huge step toward the personalization and ownership of technology. The more comfortable we are, the easier the steps toward integration become, and the shorter the social curated transitional phases are. Siri makes the technology that we're using to run our lives less distant and more accessible. She provides the illusion that someone else has it all under control. She knows—to a certain degree—even if we don't. And she doesn't lie (as far as I know), so when she doesn't know, she'll tell you so. And perhaps this makes her more trustworthy, and allows us to think of her less as a series of algorithms and logic sequences, and more as Siri.

And at the end of the day, Siri is not AI. She is extensively programmed and able to draw upon a vast ecosystem based on an array of queries. She is not an intelligent agent. She is not a free-thinking agent.* But in terms of the relationships we have with our smart devices, does this matter?


*Statement updated following this exchange.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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