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The Anthropomorphication of Siri

For someone who doesn’t even exist, Siri is quite popular. At Steve Jobs’ memorial last month on the Apple campus, not one but two of the speakers- board members Al Gore and Bill Campbell- told anecdotes about the iPhone’s new digital assistant.  She has websites devoted to enshrining her utterances  for posterity. People pour their hearts out to her, and lonely men propose marriage. Others, I assume, have secret emotional affairs with her, to the chagrin of their significant others.

What in the world is behind this mass adulation of a cleverly-crafted string of bits and bytes? The secret of Apple’s genius, that’s what. And this is what Steve Jobs, who was never shy of pouring scorn on his rivals, meant when he decreed that Google and Microsoft ‘just don’t ‘get it’. But what is it exactly, that they don’t get? The answer is what Apple considers its secret sauce- what Jobs described as the unholy matrimony between technology and the humanities. In other words, computer science with a human face.

Or voice. Both Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 operating systems had voice-recognition functions before Siri came along. But nobody talked about them. Nobody wrote adoring paens to them. Nobody loved them. Why? Because they failed to touch us as humans. When Apple bought the program that became Siri, it developed the program to actually have a personality (thus the charmingly witty, coy and even sarcastic remarks attributed to her).  They gave her a dulcet voice (Microsoft’s version has a stereotypically bland ‘androidy’ voice, and Google’s doesn’t talk). Hell, they gave her a name.

And just as we project human qualities onto our pets and even our cars, we have begun to readily project human qualities onto a pocketable electronic device, just because it talks to us in a mellifluous voice. Are we silly to do so? No doubt the androids at Google and the Bill Gates clones at Microsoft would probably have thought it silly to anthropomorphize their software (especially after Microsoft’s embarrassing debacles with previous digital assistants like Clippy, Bob, and that dog everyone would like to drown). But Apple freely embraces the touchy-feely in its products and marketing.

Where will this lead? No doubt Google and Microsoft are now internally brainstorming what to christen their respective Siri clones. No doubt Artificial Intelligence has crossed the threshold from arcane science to popular cool, and a new wave of conversationally-aware devices is in the product pipelines of many a tech company. No doubt GM, Toyota and Ford realize that Knight Rider’s KITT can be- in fact, must be- brought into the world, to chat with us as we drive to and from our cubicle farms.  And that is all splendid. It is the inevitable flood of robot girlfriends that’s got me worried.

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