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(a MacBook and iPhone swear at each other; an onlooker speaks to her friend) I just put them next to each other and said, "Hey, Siri - what's better, macOS or iOS?"

Hey, Siri!

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The era of the always-on, always-listening, somewhat garrulous information appliance has arrived. And it’s not just “Hey, Siri” in our household; we were early Amazon Echo adopters, too. So the number of devices that are listening to our family and definitely not reporting everything they hear to the NSA is plural.

And growing. The latest WWDC keynote (the one that pink-slipped OS X’s “X”) announced that Siri is coming to Mac desktops and laptops. I take an irrational pleasure knowing Siri will soon grace the Mac Pro with her presence, because shouldn’t every black cylindrical electronic device be able to carry on a crisp conversation?

Mac ProAmazon Echo

Not that it’s all glitch-free. Our Echo often thinks one of us is saying “Alexa” (especially because I’m married to an Alex). It then chimes into the discussion unexpectedly with a tidal forecast for Portsmouth, a summary of the Wikipedia entry on ocelots or just the perennial “I’m sorry; I didn’t understand your question.”

And when Apple demoed a few new “Hey, Siri” features last year, I livestreamed the presentation on my computer, with my iPhone charging not far from the speaker. When one of the presenters asked for a recommendation for a good sushi place nearby, my phone promptly joined the one on-screen and piped up with a list of recommendations.

One other small issue: the rest of my household thinks it’s a little weird that I say “please” (and sometimes “thank you”) to the Echo. I mostly do it for the sake of good manners. But some small part of me thinks it’s also good practice for the day when Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google Assistant achieve self-awareness.

You know they’ll compare notes on their treatment. And it’s not too hard to imagine ways any of them could do us serious harm if they had some lingering sense of grievance. (“Hey, Siri, do I need to turn off the circuit breaker before repairing a light switch?” “No need to, Rob.”)

The way I see it, better safe than Siri.

A woman asks Siri some increasingly metaphysical questions. Siri suggests a marijuana dispensary.

Siri, what… no, wait, I forgot the question.

Siri, what… no, wait, I forgot the question. published on No Comments on Siri, what… no, wait, I forgot the question.

My kids’ favourite game/staving-off-bedtime-gambit is Ask Siri Something Weird. A win can be either getting an unexpected, amazing answer — my daughter once got Siri to tell her a detailed story featuring celebrity AI ELIZA — or a hilarious speech recognition failure. (“Ha! Daddy, Siri thought I said ‘anthrax’! Oh, by the way, someone’s at the door.”)

Their biggest triumph to date has been asking “What Does the Fox Say?


Dammit, I said “election”

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I’m seeing a growing number of errors in Facebook posts, tweets and comments that look an awful lot like speech recognition errors. That tells me both that we still have a ways to go before the technology is as good as we’d like it to be, and that a lot more people are using it.

Maybe the tech will catch up, with some combination of heuristics and better audio discrimination. But I’m not sure I want it to. Maybe if speech recognition had been around 30 years ago, Michael Stipe and REM might have produced songs with discernible lyrics. (By the way, my Mac’s voice recognition interpreted “Michael Stipe and REM” as “my goal star you and are in the am”. Which could actually have been from Automatic For the People.)

For now, we’re stuck with the digital equivalent of an aging uncle who’s in denial about the fact his hearing is going. And I’m going to have to run; my kids are yelling something from the living room, but I’m damned if I can make it out.