Siri’s Social Dilemma

Apple’s vignette for Siri, the new voice assistant for the the iPhone 4S looks promising, nearing on the spectacular. Apple is playing up its importance and rightly so; not only is it the 4S’s biggest standout feature, it also represents the mainstream arrival of voice commands. Voice commands are a cool thing! By saying a few words to Siri, she will help you find a phone number, the weather, or a great essay service where you can buy papers online cheap. Resembling a more subdued version of Jarvis, Tony Stark’s computerized home butler, Siri promises to revolutionize the way we interact with our technology. Like Jarvis however, there’s a possibility that Siri’s potential is better illustrated in cinematographic vacuums, where the challenges of real life can be ignored.

Apple’s implementation of voice assistance may be the best example yet but there are still some hurdles to overcome, or at least, skeptics to convince. Already, many are asking about Siri’s localization efforts, or how effectively it will differentiate accents, slang or deal with nuanced language and complex sentences. Apple states that Siri will keep asking questions until it finds the right answer, but we’ve yet to see exactly how many questions that could entail, or how frustrating the experience could become. How much effort will be required to teach Siri to differentiate between Ryan your son, Ryan your boss and Ryan your aunt? And while Apple states Siri can have access to most of the iPhone’s built in apps, what of third party ones?

Supposing it can get through all those technical hurdles, Siri still faces two difficult challenges to user adoption:

  • An absence of social norms and values around the use of voice commands.
  • Privacy considerations.

While Apple’s promotional videos show Siri working fantastically in private, there’s no telling how it will be perceived out in public and how willing people will be to use it in front of friends, family, co workers and complete strangers. While it will be awesome to demonstrate to everyone you know when you’re the first get the new iPhone, how likely are people to tolerate its use in public or at work regularly? Will new iPhone owners be faced with ridicule or awkward stares from onlookers and people they know? In a group, how do individuals discern whether you are talking to them of to your phone? Will it feel strange to be out with friends at a bar witness everyone simply dictating to their phones the entire night? There are no established boundaries for using voice commands publicly on a consistent basis. Think of how text messaging is still affecting and changing social norms and behaviors. Voice assistance software like Siri will have the same kind of impact and implications as we try to discover what sorts of behaviors are acceptable. Doing so at the scale of an entire society can take time.

Secondly, voice assistance carries a whole host of privacy issues. Some are basic: How do you prevent others from using your phone with voice commands? What kind of access security is built in to a system like Siri? In some cases, it can become more complex. Consider how much private information is contained in your smartphone. How much of that information would you be comfortable broadcasting around you to strangers and people you know? Would you be willing to have Siri dictate your texts, emails or appointments out loud in your workplace? At home? You can imagine a thousand and one scenarios where that would be undesirable. Would you want a secretary dictating your next appointment out loud into your doctor’s iPhone for everyone in the waiting room to hear?

Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to say that you could simply turn Siri’s notifications on and off when necessary: the inconvenience would turn users away. And remember, a text message or email is not the same as a phone call. The contents and contexts in which they are used are worlds apart and there are reasons why one is used over the other. Some forms of communication are silent for a reason. Replacing text input commands with voice ones may improve the methods by which we transmit information, but it is unclear whether to do so is actually more beneficial or more desirable than its tactile counterparts. Let’s face it, no one uses text messaging solely to alert their spouses they’ll be late coming home. There’s an inherent privacy to smartphones, and computers in general, that precludes the attractiveness of voice commands. Hence why it is always demonstrated in sterile and mostly private situations: checking the weather, asking for measurements, in your car’s navigation system. Voice assistants aren’t great at keeping your extra marital affairs under wraps.

The latter issue informs the former, and vice versa. If the situations where Siri is used are limited to private and simple situations, it’s unlikely people will commit to voice commands meaningfully, making it more difficult for voice assistance to define and integrate itself in a larger social context. This in turn elongate the period of time needed for voice assistance to become socially acceptable (read: not embarrassing), exasperating people’s reluctance towards it. If people are only going to use Siri some of the time, it’s more likely they won’t develop the habit of using consistently, even in private. Hence the difference between Siri becoming an “essential service” and remaining a “gimmick”.

The technological limitations, if any, will work themselves out. Projects like Siri have been in the oven for a long time and have come a long way: future iterations of the iPhone are sure to improve upon any flaw we might yet find. What’s more pressing is finding Siri’s identity, its _raison d’etre- outside the confines of our vehicles, homes and promotional videos.


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