Siri, for her many charms, is not actually a “her”, and not actually a “human”. She doesn’t have opinions, and her stated position on any topic under the sun can and must be reduced to the simple expression of a one or a zero. PCMag is running a piece on the fact that Siri is rather dumb. I don’t like the term “dumb”  because personally I think it implies a lack of curiosity rather than a lack of knowledge, but it’s an insightful read, and pretty much explains the basis for this misconception. Siri is both  curious and  knowledgeable, but she’s neither politically astute nor able to seek answers that satisfy the subjective questions of those who are.

I’m not voicing an opinion on women’s reproductive rights. You could probably look at who I am, where I live, the generally progressive values I promote, and draw your own conclusions as to what my leanings may be. I’m allowed to have those opinions, and you’re allowed to challenge them, and that’s kind of the point.

In case you’re wondering: In general, Siri searches topics by keyword. “Abortion” is a keyword on many pro-life leaning websites. The term is avoided by many in the pro-choice community. It’s not rocket science to anticipate which result set is going to be returned with a keyword search. Note that this is a material shortcoming, but it’s a concrete dilemma without a clear answer: How  do we systematically correlate themes and topics without preexisting knowledge of them, if all we have to go by is a keyword? Thankfully, people far smarter than I continue to seek solutions to this question. Solutions are found in observing behaviors of those searching keywords rather than the keywords themselves (this was after all the key to Google’s search sauce a decade ago), but it’s still a vexing challenge, and it’s still an infant technology.

I like political discourse, but I like it to be smart and predicated on insights with merit. The suggestion that Siri is promoting a pro-life agenda is as well considered as the suggestion that Apple promotes an anti-left-handed agenda by placing USB ports on the right-side of the iMac (this particularly egregious political statement having gone un-criticized for years).

Given that I consider some of the individuals expressing this sentiment to be quite intelligent, I’m a bit flabbergasted. Siri doesn’t have opinions, she has algorithms. There is room for improvement, and those who observed that Siri isn’t working as well is it could (regardless of one’s opinion on the topic) in this specific capacity were right to draw Apple’s attention to it. To assert it as some sort of Apple-backed-political statement in the media rather than the perfectly explicable behavior of a fallible tool (it won’t find you a root canal, either) is either ill-informed or intentionally misleading for purposes of political self-promotion.  I take exception to either, particularly coming from “leaders” who are supposed to be informing us, not convoluting the argument with dumb accusations (yeah, I said dumb).

The accusation  insults those of us who aren’t algorithms, and who actually do carry thoughtfully-considered and well-informed arguments on any topic of controversy. It’s also a slap to those who strive to develop and enable technologies such as Siri to be incredibly simple but powerful tools for humans. Accusing the folks that work tirelessly producing a tool with the magnificent expectation of parsing the entire world’s knowledge in a matter of seconds (to any question known to man) of subverssively  harboring and promoting some phantom political position is bad form. I’m not typically sympathetic to Google, but I’d certainly extend them the same latitude to any result set they’d return on a controversial matter (though being a search company, I think the standard of measure should be higher).

If there is a basis for concern, I think it may be tied to the broader issue that women are under-represented in tech and in engineering. I have no knowledge of the team that created Siri (other than what is publicly written about the original Siri team at the time it was acquired and brought into Apple) or the genders of those who built it, and my opinion here is informed not by fact but by anecdotal observation and pure speculation. Siri relies on generic and incredibly far-reaching algorithms for parsing questions and returning results, but it’s also evident she’s been programmed for a few “special cases”: Given the right question, she’ll chirp back a quirky witticism rather than an informative and relevant result. So how is it she’ll try to help you bury a body down old quarry road, but can’t tell a crisis pregnancy center from  an abortion clinic? Well, it’s overly simple, but, put simple: Men created Siri. They may or may not even have political opinions on abortion, but the reality is that as a topic of general consideration, women’s rights are likely further down the list in the mind of the average highly-educated-intelligent-and-motivated male engineer than that of the average highly-educated-intelligent-and-motivated female engineer (or product manager). It’s sad that women’s rights don’t garner as much attention in the male psyche of 2011 as the idea of burying a body (I blame video games), but this points to the broader issue, not to what Siri has to say on any given topic.

If this is a matter of being an advocate for women, if what you seek is to avoid misconceptions (and on this topic, there are many) in your own mind and in the minds of others,  my suggestion (and indeed my own ideal) is to promote a culture that values diversity and is thus  more likely to anticipate the concerns of women and all social groups as we push science and technology forward.  The answer to the problem isn’t “Siri needs to know where to find an abortion clinic” but rather  that Siri, and by extension technology, needs to know more about women. To know more, it must be informed, and the best way it could be informed would be if more women were involved with building it. Tech needs women. It’s not as captivating a headline as “Siri is anti-abortion”, but it enjoys the benefit of being both true and constructive.

 

 

 

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