Doesn’t Siri say the darnedest things? She’s the little personal assistant app on the new iPhone. Just like Clippy the Paperclip on the old Windows machines used to help us write letters and stuff, now Siri soft-spoken assistance for day planning, as if we were all clones of Steve Jobs with our own cool assistants whispering in our ear. Siri is a far cry from that paperclip taping on the computer screen. Much more discreet and human-like, thus inspiring every Apple-geek to become an amateur Turing tester to see if Siri can pass as human, while Siri meanwhile trains them to pass as machines. That’s for another post.
Apple designed the app to be an iPhone user’s instant assistant, ready to provide answers to any question or statement when prompted — including “what’s the meaning of life” and “open the pod bay doors” (a nod to the movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey”). Siri can schedule or move appointments, offer news and weather, look up facts, find restaurants, send text messages and browse the Internet to the user’s heart’s desire. That is, if the app can understand the request.
According to Apple, Siri can speak and understand US, UK and DU (as in Down Under) versions of English, also French and German. Apple says, “Siri is designed to recognize the specific accents and dialects of the supported countries listed above. Since every language has its own accents and dialects, the accuracy rate will be higher for native speakers.”
Native speakers, aye, but a Scotch native speaker?
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For Siri dinna ken a word Scots say!
But even the eloquence of Bonnie Bobbie Burns is not enough to turn Siri’s ear. In fact any accent that strays too far from the Estuary of SE English is lost to Siri’s Brit version, with similar problems for American whose pronunciations lie so distant from Burbank Studios.
Siri will support additional languages from next year, including Japanese, Chinese, South Korean, Spanish and Italian. But apparently not Scottish or other hard-as-haggis-to-understand dialects.
Not so surprisingly, Siri’s real problem isn’t listening comprehension, or fluency. She’s just thin on local content, which is also dialect specific, if you think about it. Right now Siri needs to use U.S. English and be in the U.S. if you want to look for businesses, maps, and traffic. What a vast coding project that must be, to squeeze the everyday of the world into our pocket, one linguistic region after another.
Now, this dialect problem has inspired many who speak accented English to post videos of Siri struggling to understand their marble-mouthed utterances. I watched a bunch because I thought they would be funny. I was wrong. I was a fool to think that someone talking to an iPhone app would be amusing. It’s not. But I’ve wasted this much time on it, and darned if you shouldn’t have to do the same. “Parked my car in Harvard Square” by the Boston Globe is better than most: