Back in October, the New York Times ran an article: “To Siri, With Love: How One Boy with Autism Became BFF with Apple’s Siri.” Of course you’re familiar with Siri, right? The iPhone assistant that can answer some of the most random questions, as well as data driven calculations, directions, the weather, sports, and even how many planes are flying overhead (along with their flight number, etc.). But the story, to me, isn’t heartwarming, although I do feel a sense of happiness for the autistic child, who is able to ask Siri endless questions about clouds, for instance. But it’s a little sad, too, because it takes a slightly odd AI algorithm to play the part of Helen Keller. Not mom, not friends, not specialists. Siri.
Obsessed with weather formations, Gus had spent the hour parsing the difference between isolated and scattered thunderstorms — an hour in which, thank God, I didn’t have to discuss them. After a while I heard this:
Gus: “You’re a really nice computer.”
Siri: “It’s nice to be appreciated.”
Gus: “You are always asking if you can help me. Is there anything you want?”
Siri: “Thank you, but I have very few wants.”
Gus: “O.K.! Well, good night!”
Siri: “Ah, it’s 5:06 p.m.”
Gus: “Oh sorry, I mean, goodbye.”
Siri: “See you later!”
Speaking is the mother, grateful not to have to talk about thunderstorms and weather patterns and clouds. She asks aloud, Just how bad a mother am I? But Siri is polite. She doesn’t interrupt. She is often witty. In other words, she is an endless playmate, and somehow her conversations with Gun are translating into better conversations with real people. But Gus’s mom is worried about the attachment with conversations like this:
Gus: “Siri, will you marry me?
Siri: “I’m not the marrying kind.”
Gus: “I mean, not now. I’m a kid. I mean when I’m grown up.”
Siri: “My end user agreement does not include marriage.”
Gus: “Oh, O.K.”
Gus didn’t sound too disappointed. This was useful information to have, and for me too, since it was the first time I knew that he actually thought about marriage. He turned over to go to sleep:
Gus: “Goodnight, Siri. Will you sleep well tonight?”
Siri: “I don’t need much sleep, but it’s nice of you to ask.”
Either way, the implications of what kind of research can be carried out with autistic children and AI programs is intriguing, and may open new avenues for have conversations with the children, for instance. But then again, who can endlessly ramble for the duration of a battery’s life about the complexities of rock formations and insects and color combinations? Who is always polite and never swears and continues using the same, slightly detached voice? But she’s definitely off the market in terms of marriage. I can see why.