I have been having immense problems with the recalcitrant version of Siri on my I-phone. It isn’t as if i don’t get her. She started out life as a him on my phone since I naturally selected UK English as my default language when setting up the device. At first I toyed with the idea that I really didn’t like the inflection that the male voice carried with it as it misread everything I tried telling it. How much ever i tried to get him to call my wife, I would get connected to a random contact who Siri thought was more appropriate for the occasion. To top it all, I could hear a definite tone of superiority as he decided who I should connect with.
Try as I might, I couldn’t get Siri – less than Siri got me too. I had to be online for Siri to connect with his brain in the clouds and no amount of rolling my R’s or mimicking Stephen Fry could get a useful job done out of him. Then I found that I could get a female version by changing the language setting to US English. Life had to be easier didn’t it – after all I was used to talking to a lady who heard exactly what she wanted and made me believe that I then wanted to do what she thought was best for me. My original managed it without any judgmental overtones, but the newly female Siri can’t claim the same. The gender change has done nothing to eliminate the implied snigger as ‘she’ now makes a mess of my desires.
Now to make matters worse I understand that Siri is going to clone herself into car infotainment systems. Microsoft and Ford have already managed to put 10,000 spoken commands in their latest cars. So have Volkswagen (in the CC that I tested recently). But I ask, are we really ready for voice in the cabin?
My first interaction with voice was in the BMW 7-series. The friendly BMW employee demonstrating the system was having my Siri-like issues in trying to get the 7 to understand him. I am sure his deep south Indian rumble must have clashed with the 7’s south German sensibilities. Nowadays the car as a butler manages quite a bit more. Coming back to Ford’s 10000 commands, I have seen it happen – it understands some of us expats for sure.
The biggest challenge that any voice interactive system faces is understanding the sheer range of voices, languages, inflections and intonations. The human brain with all its spare neurons and its ability to infer a context for the words it hears feels challenged when you meet someone from a different place in the world speaking English. So how much can you really pack into the car’s brain?
A different aspect is having the car speak to you – the navigation system already does that bit. I find it useful, partly because it gives an identity to the unit. I have driven in an Audi A3 which used to tell me to take a right turn, and after I had committed to the exit it would add,” after 200 metres”. Newer systems now understand human behaviour better and phrase it better, “After 200 metres take the next right”. I named that system Katrina (after the hurricane and for the damage she was causing me). For all you know Siri could be her progeny in some weird Orwellian system software generation way.
The issue is what happens when Siri and her ilk start showing their attitude in the car? You say take me home and find yourself somewhere strange. Or when you are in a car with your family, it starts reading out an incoming message from all and sundry.
I tell you, if you let Siri have her way, the world will be a more challenged place. She will follow us on the road, into our bathrooms and even our workplaces. Her hold is growing on us. One day you’ll realise it is too late when you try to switch on your car and she replies. “are you sure?”
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