Siri is one of the main selling points of the iPhone 4S, but can it really realise the promise of a true digital assistant making hands-free communication easier? Kotaku editor Mark is about to find out the hard way after he vows to communicate with his wife only using Siri and texting.
“Sorry I don’t understand ‘Hearsay’.”
I touch Siri’s mic icon.
“Text Heizy,” I say again, slowly, and tone down the Scottish.
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘Easy’.”
Hi. My name is Mark Serrels and I’m overwhelmingly Scottish. Heizy is my wife, and she is Australian. We met in Japan when we were both 21 years old and we fell in love. When I first met Heizy I was sure I knew her from somewhere, that we had met somewhere before, but she didn’t recognise me at all.
The first thing Heizy remembers about me was my accent. She loved it, but always asked me to slow down — to begin with at least. Now, after being together for seven years and married for five, she doesn’t even hear the accent. It’s become completely invisible. Now Heizy gets confused when people can’t understand what I say.
“Text Heizy,” I say, once more. Frustration creeping through.
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘is’.
Pause. Then a question.
“To whom shall I send this message?”
Heizy and I always buy our phones together. Mainly because we are a pathetic old married couple, but also in order to make payment easier. Last weekend we upgraded our battered iPhone 3s to iPhone 4Ss.
“Let’s text only using Siri for the next couple of days,” I said, as we walked home from Westfield.
What a terrible, terrible idea that was.
Communication by its nature is a stilted, broken thing. This is because it involves two people; two completely different people with fundamentally different brains. You can never be sure how your message will be interpreted or misinterpreted.
This is how arguments start.
“You said you were going to pick up the keys,” I said, long ago, as my wife dialled the number for the locksmith.
“No, I told you to pick up the keys.”
That’s one simple example.
“I know there’s something wrong.”
That’s another, more complicated example, clouded by layers of misinterpreted visual cues. Those arguments are the worst. The pointless ones, where reason is abandoned and no one can even remember how it began.
Steady reliable technology — it’s a place where you can slowly calculate your response. That’s why I’ve always favoured texts over phonecalls — insecurities can be hidden, snap judgements disguised, negative body language obscured. Communicating through the written word is often the best way to diffuse an argument — emotion can be drained from the conversation. You can communicate precisely.
This is not the case with Siri.
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘is’.”
This is what it has come to, I put on an English accent.
“OK, I can send a text to Heizy for you… what would you like it to say?”
“What time are you coming home?” I say, clearly, returning to my own accent.
“I updated your message. Ready to send it?”
The message read ‘What’s a reapproval today.”
I click send. This is part of the deal. Whatever Siri interprets me saying, I will send regardless of the outcome.
Some additional context — today my wife and I only have one set of keys; we had to lend our spare set to a family member. I have the sole set of keys, I’m going home early and I want to go out with friends. Heizy wants to come home later, at a time when I’ll most likely be unable to let her into the house. So “what time are you coming home?” is an important question, but the wrong version has been sent.
I wait. My phone buzzes.
“Honey I have no idea what area prevalence today still.”
This is spiralling into chaos. Rapidly.
I trace back the conversation. I try to imagine what Heizy thought I said and what she might have said in response to what she thought I said. I wonder what I might say in response to the thing she tried to say in response to my own failed communication. Then I get a headache.
Faux English accent works like a charm.
“OK, I can send a text to Heizy for you… what would you like it to say?” Replies Siri.
“What time will you get home today.” Same faux English accent.
Remarkably Siri interprets this as — ‘I said what time you get home today.’ I can’t believe it.
Seconds later I get this reply.
“Hi honey I’ll get home at six probably.”
It feels like a small miracle; like two cavemen prodding each other in the chest for the first time. “You Heizy? Me… Mark.”
To be perfectly honest I don’t remember precisely what I tried to say in this next text; probably something along the lines of “Really, you can get home that quickly.” The message was garbled onto the screen.
‘Really? You gonna get home mail?’
Reply: ‘Actually sorry I will party home at seven 730.’
Not bad. I think everyone would like to ‘party’ home — way better than walking or driving — but the exchange is clear. I can understand it in context — I begin to believe. Siri is primitive, but maybe we can communicate analogously with technology as a middle man (or woman, in Siri’s case).
Yet the dull hum of marital stress continues to vibrate in the pit of my stomach — a solution has not yet been reached. I need to leave the house before Heizy arrives home from work. I won’t be home to let her into our apartment. Argh!
“But I want to leave the flat at seven to go climbing!” When I get frustrated, I become more Scottish.
Message sent: ‘What I want or claiming at seven bookline #’
Yes. Siri actually entered a ‘hash’ into a spoken text message. I have no earthly idea how that happened. In communication, the angrier and less rational you become, the more likely you are to be misunderstood.
My phone beeps with a reply.
“PDF 90 what you message talk about but I think I will be home at said that Kingscrest.”
Married life can be difficult.
Communication is a stilted, broken thing — because meaning isn’t static and language is malleable. There’s poetry in silence, yet silence also has the power to become a terrible destructive thing. All we have is the words we use.
And Siri garbles those words so easily, so consistently
When we bring a third party into a relationship, and we use that third party to communicate, it’s of paramount importance that message is passed accurately and quickly to its intended target.
“Tell Heizy we’re asking for her,” my Dad always says, when we chat on the phone.
“Tell your Dad I said hi,” says Heizy before I make the call.
But I always, always forget to pass on the message.
Picture by Oli Scarff/Getty Images