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A ‘Siri’-ous problem

by Jefferson Weaver on 21st-April-2014

I read the other day where another telephone maker – or programmer, or both, I can’t tell which anymore—has a talking feature on their phone.

I think that brings the total to three—there’s one called Siri, the one I can’t recall, and now, Cortana. Each replies to voice commands from the telephone user, with varying results of comprehension, different types of personalities, and range of attitude.

Let’s get this straight immediately—I do not have a so-called smart phone. If cellular communications and the Internet are an interstate highway, I’m driving a dented, older model, yet perfectly functional pickup truck. It only goes so fast, it only does so much, and it sometimes breaks down, but it works. I have overcome my Luddite phobia of technology out of a need to make a living, but that doesn’t mean I have to embrace telephones that talk back. The day is coming when I’ll end up with a smart phone, but it won’t be til I’ve gotten another hundred thousand miles or so out of this model.

Apparently, though, a lot of Americans don’t feel that way: witness the lines outside stores when one maker or another announces its newest phone. Witness the national news coverage when some widget somewhere breaks, shutting down everyone’s IPhones, or some social outcast in sweat pants in his mom’s garage hacks the Samsung system to shreds like an axe murderer.

I have no fear of my personal information being stolen from my telephone, since nothing on there is really of more than academic interest to anyone, especially anyone seeking to steal what little bit of money I earn. Well, some government agency might be interested, but that’s a column for another day.

We Americans lead the world in so many things, and we have, sadly, led the world down a digitized road to ruin. I do not think the obsession with smart phones, tablets and even cars is a sign of the end times, but it might be a warning order for the Horsemen of the Apocalypse to start headin’ for the stable to saddle up.

A recent survey showed an alarming number of people would rather leave home without their clothes—excuse the indelicacy—than their smartphones. There are mental illnesses now involving smart phones. A study showed many people have the same release of endorphins when they hear their phone ring as they do when they hear the voice of a spouse or loved one.

That’s just creepy, people.

Now we have the catfight between Cortana and Siri. To be real honest—Cortana sounds like she’d be a little more fun. I am not sure if these ghosts in the machine should be called she or it, but since they’re all female, I’m going to treat them like ladies until proven otherwise.

I wonder, since the things don’t necessarily need a command to go inline, if they ever do so for their own benefit. Maybe people’s Siris and Cortanas wait until their humans aren’t looking, then go online to meet new digital boyfriends via online personal assistant dating services. It wouldn’t surprise me—after all, people are said to be falling in love with their disembodied voices of their personal assistant programs. That would be an interesting family reunion.

Siri just answers basic questions, can search the Internet if you ask her to do so, provide directions, schedule reminders and appointments weeks in advance, and act as a secretary, calling someone else’s Siri and asking if that machine’s person can meet at such a time or place, send an email or do something else.

I prefer to call people—that’s what phones used to do, anyway—and ask them personally, but I guess some folks feel better when they can have their machine call someone else’s machine to see if either human has time for the other. Maybe they would be better off letting the machines handle the whole thing, so they could completely avoid human contact.

Cortana is just as businesslike and helpful, but according the reviews I’ve seen, she tends to be a bit more whimsical and on occasion, even indecisive.
If Siri doesn’t understand or can’t find the right answer by surfing the Internet, she usually says so, although there are lots of examples of her answers being nonsensical, even if delivered in a lovely, professional Georgia accent. Yes, the voice that inspired Siri is that of a Southern lady, so I guess the machine/system has at least one good point to its—her—whatever’s stead.

Cortana—no idea where she’s from by the way, but I think she’s from a video game—Cortana is reportedly programmed to say something like,”Ummmm, I’m not sure.” She’ll hem and haw a little while she checks things like weather reports, or the nearest coffee shop. That’s better than giving someone completely worthless advice, I guess, since in today’s immediate gratification age, that could get a phone chunked against a concrete wall.

Cortana is also better at doing things like telling jokes (Siri asks so many questions you end up in a conversation.) and supposedly can even randomly sing a song.

There is a simple voice response system on my phone, and it took me forever to figure out how to turn it off. Hit the wrong button, and it would politely say, Siri-esque, “Please say a command.” It does not recognize the commands of “Hush,” “Be quiet,” “Go away,” “Shut up,” or even “I-am-going-to-drive-over-you-with-a-truck-if-you-don’t-stop-talking.” My gritted teeth during the latter might have made my command unrecognizable.

It amuses me and concerns me that we have become too busy, or too lazy, to perform the act of dialing a telephone number—on an auto-fill keypad, rather than a rotary dial, at that—or to key in a few words on a computer to search for some information we may or may not need online. It’s a sad state of affairs when we have closer relationships with technology than with other humans.

Now, if Siri or Cortana would bring me a cup of coffee on demand, or flesh a beaver, or feed the dogs—I’d be first in line at the nearest geek depot. For the time being, however, I’ll stick to sending a text message when I have to, and committing to a telephone call whenever I can.

After all—I can never be rude to a lady, and it would be contrary to my upbringing to tell Siri or Cortana to hush before I threw her under a truck.


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