Apple’s Siri Hard of Hearing

Posted by · December 7, 2011 5:25 pm

There’s no doubt about it. Siri is revolutionizing the way the people retrieve information. When Google’s Eric Schmidt went out of his way to acknowledge Apple’s new voice assistant as a rival in the search market, it became clear that Siri was by no means a passing fad. Bypassing the common expectation of having to sift through seemingly endless lists of search results by delivering one concrete answer to user questions, Siri has become an attractive alternative to using search engines like Google to find the best place for Italian food or see a local play.

However, in the midst of such excitement, it is difficult to keep in mind one small detail: Siri is still a fledgling service. Not unlike most products in their debut form, the latest Apple technology is not devoid of imperfections. And one of those hang-ups is becoming increasingly difficult to overlook as the Siri-loaded iPhone 4S makes its way into more and more hands.

According to several sources, Siri, not unlike like an American tourist traveling abroad, has a hard time understanding English when cloaked by a foreign accent. Joining the Scottish users who became frustrated with the software shortly after the release of the iPhone 4S, users with Southern and Indian accents made their difficulty known this week as well.

“[O]nce the novelty wore off,” wrote Gizmodo’s Mat Honan, “what I found was that Siri is not so intelligent after all—it’s simply another voice program that will obey very specific commands.”

So specific, in fact, that these unfortunate users did not have the “correct” accents to use the service.

“Were this Google, or Microsoft,” he continued, “I’d shrug.” But Apple, “the company that sells perfection,” has no excuse in his opinion.

But this is not the end of the line for Siri. At least not yet. Still technically in its Beta state, Siri does effectively have a sort of insurance against these kinds of mishaps. Rather than being forced to admit that the program is so much as inadequate, Apple can simply let its users know that accents simply have not yet been fully programmed into Siri.

“All recognizers get better every year,” noted Dan Jurafsky, a professor in the linguistics and computer science departments at Stanford University. Unlike other critics, Professor Jurafsky seems confident that Siri will weather this onslaught of criticism by making a few adjustments, a key one being the creation of modified dictionaries to accommodate the various accents.

Until then, those of us without Siri’s preferred accent will have to continue using Google.