Why the problem with Siri matters

Why the problem with Siri matters

Summary: Controversy continues for Apple's virtual personal assistant Siri and its behavior around female sexual healthcare crises.

TOPICS: Apple, Google, Health

A week ago, bloggers brought to light that Apple's voice-controlled mobile assistant Siri was delivering distressful omissions when asked about certain kinds of emergency healthcare situations.

Specifically, situations that relate to female sexual emergencies. American bloggers in different locations were asking Siri to help them find abortion clinics, the morning after pill, and rape crisis resources. When Siri was delivering results at all, they were often the offensive opposite.

If you missed the controversy, Siri was branded across news headlines as being "pro-life" (the questionable self-name for anti-abortion crusaders, widely known for their violence, aggression and fanaticism).

The story is no longer breaking but it's certainly still unfolding. The ACLU has a petition and is not letting the issue fade.

The reason Siri got its pro-life association was that the program didn't just return zero results for abortion clinics when it should have been. In multiple instances Siri directed users to pro-life "pregnancy counseling centers" whose primary motivations are to talk women out of considering certain sex-related healthcare options including abortion, contraception and more.

Siri also couldn't find a clinic that performs abortions even when asked for a specific women's healthcare clinic by name.

Many pointed out that when asked for Viagra, Siri had no problem getting users to erection pills and the same for finding sex workers - and humorous places to hide their dead bodies when you were done. Yet Siri had no idea what morning after pills were, and queries about rape resources returned responses that made Siri seem like it was making fun rape victims.

The main issue was that Siri appeared to be skewed pro-life.

Everyone, Get Your Tinfoil Hats

It would be much less murky if Apple's founder wasn't a newly minted pro-life hero. Catholic websites and pro-life blogs celebrated the news about Siri. USA Catholic said that "the pro-life iPhone" was "another case for the sainthood of Steve Jobs."

The first case for his sainthood cited by anti-choice blogs and websites was the sentiment Jobs expressed in his biography that he was glad his mother didn't choose abortion. (Although this is a curious thing to say, as abortion wasn't an option in the United States until it was legalized in 1973; Jobs was born in the mid-1950s.)

The same pro-life and "family" groups had also applauded Jobs' strong anti-pornography stance.

Accusing Apple of anti-choice malfeasance is a stretch, to put it lightly. And despite the wet dreams of many pro-life blogs and religious websites, the political position of Steve Jobs on abortion is unknown.

After the issue made mainstream press, Apple had the really good idea of not letting Siri give the response.

Instead Apple told the New York Times, "These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone. It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better, and we will in the coming weeks."

That's a great answer. Especially because it doesn't step in the mess of exactly what omissions they're talking about, and with the 'it's beta' excuse users lose permission to complain because they're willingly using a product that was knowingly released as unfinished.

Programmer, please. "It's beta" is for startups on the playground. "It's beta" rings hollow on a product that has high-end TV commercials, especially an Apple product, and moreso when Siri itself is often a key buying decision for the new iPhone.

Siri has an interesting backstory. It began as a startup app that emerged from stealth in 2008, a smart "virtual personal assistant" for iPhone with a planned Android release. Well, at least that was the plan until it was acquired by Apple in April 2010. No one's saying what Apple has done to Siri since the purchase.

Siri was midwifed by the CALO project, and her twin partner was Nuance. An important side detail here is that one of Nuance's main defined verticals is healthcare.

Still, There's Something [Icky] About Siri

It's pretty hard to get around at least one theme in the whole Siri female sex crisis dustup.

It's just icky that (in the US) Siri is a woman that does your bidding, and you're definitely in luck if you're a guy that wants "her" to fetch you penis pills to get it up and a sex worker for getting off. But if you get raped, it's kind of like sorry, sister.

I still think we should never suspect bad intentions when the explanation is simple ignorance. And hey - Siri isn't actually that great for critical tasks; that's no big secret.

But let's take another look at why Siri isn't helping out her American sisters when they're having a sexual healthcare crisis.

If you can get through the defensive histrionics over at The Unofficial Apple Weblog, we're told that Siri's got no social or political agenda, but her flawed results are to be blamed on retrieving results from Yelp and other databases that have user-generated tagging systems.

Unfortunately, the well-meaning TUAW article has too many "if Siri works this way" explanations to be conclusive either way - we're still left with maybe this is what's going on here.

With much lower blood pressure, Search Engine Land did a careful analysis about the way Siri might be pulling results from places that simply don't have exact words (like "abortion") in their names or titles. Danny Sullivan suggests they may not be listed in the "abortion" categories either, but he adds, "That's the best guess I have."

Sullivan still had to point out that Siri has different behaviors around these touchy topics than it does with others. He did a really great job testing terms and unpacking as much as he could to look closely at Siri's search behavior, and comparing Yelp results.

He came up with some interesting discrepancies.

For instance, there are the Washington DC results where Siri produces two pro-life centers, yet Sullivan had to really hunt to find the same pro-life listings in Yelp search results. He writes, "Woah. What’s going on there? I don’t know."

In the same vein, while Apple's PR department might have fed those clever and humorous easter egg questions to tech bloggers, their statements in response to the female sexuality flap are weak, vague. I strongly agree with Sullivan that with this PR strategy they're not really answering anything - and it doesn't help.

I really like that Danny reminds us Siri doesn't actually "know" what we're talking about, and that Apple is new to search - and search engine PR disasters.

But in his post there is something he only hinted at that I want to tease apart to show you why I think the problem with Siri really matters.

Apple's engineers are clever enough to spend thought, effort and time to make Siri give us funny answers about hiding dead bodies.

But the same workers didn't spare a single minute to make sure a variety of female sexual healthcare crises and emergencies have a minimum of equal consideration.

That is the thing, in all this mess, that I find most astonishing.

This is a real problem.

Topics: Apple, Google, Health

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  • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

    zdnet sucks

    LOL... i tried 5 different ways to post my reply below, and ZDnet... in true fashion, your TalkBack system wouldn't take it...

    yet I type "zdnet sucks" and it accepts my post.

    Quite fitting.
    • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

      The real problem is that there are too few women executives of power within Apple to make decisions. This was apparently obvious when Apple named their tablet the iPad. Until this is fixed, these kinds of over looked women's issues will remain.
      • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

        @veggiedude While women in exectutive positions would be positive, I don't think that is where the focus needs to be placed. I believe that we need to change how women are viewed in society and provide all people - regardless of gender, age or orientation - with dignity and respect.
      • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

        @veggiedude What a man in tech or healthcare can't be sensitive to women's issues? Get off it! There are many of us men who are not ogres and think a women is a vessel for our use. This whole blog post is ripe with prejudicial thinking, filtered through the mind of someone who thinks that every one who is pro life does not care about women and their health and well being. And everyone else in the world gets to use the beta tag but Apple because of their great and superior place on the top of the tech world is not? Always wanting to play it both ways. Claim you are open minded and then turn around and show you true thinking. Yes Siri is probably better at finding a pharmacy since there are hundreds of them in every city; where as they may be 2 or 3 abortion clinics or crisis centers for women. You could say the same thing about the local Kazakhstan eatery. Siri does not know where it is since there is probably one if any, so Siri is prejudiced against people from Kazakhstan. Why does everything like this have to be looked at like there is some deep dark conspiracy involved. Google maps can't find lots of things. I don't hear you complaining about that; of course not you are addicted to everything Apple and could care less what Google maps does. Get a life. Everyone isn't prejudiced, every Christian does not cling to guns and God and the whole world isn't out to get women. A lot of us really like women, respect them and their work, and have no problem with the fact that Siri does not know every little thing like the human mind. It is software. I think some Apple folks forget that. It's only as good as what goes into it. Has Apple had the vans with video like Google cruising the country to know where every single thing is? No so they simply may no know where the clinic you are looking for is. Has that thought crossed your mind?? And a woman manager is not going to change that.
      • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

        @veggiedude What is wrong with iPad?
      • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

        @veggiedude What's wrong with iPad? Wouldn't be without mine - better than wondering where my penis and grabbing a paper pad....
    • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

      @UrNotPayingAttention <br><br>I'm thinking Siri sucks more than ZDNET! In side by side comparisons of Apple Siri and Micorosoft's TellMe...TellMe wins hands down! I just used TellMe to search for Abortion Clinics and it returned directions to the nearest clinic along with all the information I need to make a proper decision! TellMe puts you in control not APPLE! Siri is just a POS wrapper for a weak search engine. Apple throws in a womans voice and makes you think you have a friend in your phone but the reality is you have an Apple Agent in your phone who wants to inject her opinion on your personal affairs! If you want a product that works make the switch to Windows Phone! Take control of your life and ditch the *****!
      • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

        thank you! Finally someone else who isn't brainwashed by those apple pos devices!!!
        simianthe liver
      • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

        @rob.sharp@... Ok, either put up or shut up, where are the links to said side by side comparisons?
    • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

      @UrNotPayingAttention Quick call he ACLU and get a petition against the forum software that ZDNET uses!
  • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

    Well, it's not astonishing when you realize that women only make up 10-20% of computer science engineers. Of course a bunch of dudes forgot about women's issues, but had plenty of time for dead body jokes. <br><br>It's lonely up in here. Seriously, help a girl out and learn some Java, ladies.
    • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters


      I think you are exactly right.
      • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

        @Shmythey haha! yes, me too. Also agree totally with @Skudera
    • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters


      I think there's another sexism case if you've been lumbered with Java ;-) My advice would be any .Net language or any of the server languages (PhP etc), but slow, lumbering buggy Java - just say no.
      • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters


        I agree Java sucks! At least .NET is an open world standard. Look at the mess Google is going through thanks to the proprietary Java from Oracle...

        Anyway, when (as of December 9th 2011) we're at jdk-6u29, mostly security fixes and patches, I shiver to think what nasty surprises are in jdk-7u1. Eech!

        ECMA C# and Common Language Infrastructure Standards

        In June 2005, the General Assembly of the international standardization organization Ecma approved edition 3 of the C# Language and the Common Language Infrastructure (CLI) specifications, as updated Ecma-334 and Ecma-335, respectively (see press release). The updated technical report on the CLI, Ecma TR-84, and a new technical report on the CLI, Ecma TR-89, were also ratified.

        In July 2005, Ecma submitted the Standards and TRs to ISO/IEC JTC 1 via the ISO Fast-Track process. The Standards were adopted in April 2006 as ISO/IEC 23270:2006 (C#), ISO/IEC 23270:2006 (CLI), ISO/IEC TR 23272:2006 (CLI, XML Libraries) and ISO ISO/IEC TR 25438:2006 (CLI, Common Generics).

        In July 2006 the General Assembly of Ecma approved edition 4 of the Standards which correspond to the ISO 2006 versions.

        Latest Standards

        The following official Ecma documents are available for C# and the CLI (TR-84, TR-89). These links are direct from Ecma:

        C# Language Specification

        Common Language Infrastructure

        XML-based Library Specification

        Information Derived from Partition IV XML File

        XML Tool, Libraries in Microsoft?? Word and PDF

        Common Generics Library

        Common Generics Library Reference Implementation
        Reference implementation for TR-89
        Reference implementation for the Parallel API

        The official ISO/IEC documents are available from the ISO/IEC Freely Available Standards page. These links are direct from that page:
        ISO/IEC 23270:2006

        Information technology -- Programming languages -- C#
        ISO/IEC 23271:2006
        - Software
        Information technology -- Common Language Infrastructure (CLI)
        Partitions I to VI
        ISO/IEC TR 23272:2006
        - Software
        Information technology -- Common Language Infrastructure (CLI)
        -- Technical Report on Information Derived from Partition IV XML File
        ISO/IEC TR 25438:2006
        - Software

        Information technology -- Common Language Infrastructure (CLI)
        -- Technical Report: Common Generics

        Current Working Draft

        Work on the 5th edition of Ecma-335 CLI standard began in mid-2009. The TC49-TG3 task group is working on extending both the virtual machine and class libraries of the CLI specification. In addition, improvements are being made to clarify existing elements of the specification. Many of these improvements are the result of feedback received from outside the task group, for which the task group is grateful.

        Posted below is a snapshot of the committee's work as of 27 March 2010.

        The participants in TC49/TG3 are providing these working documents to the public for informational purposes only. The contents are subject to change as often as once a month. To participate in the standardization process, contact your organization's Ecma representative. If your company does not currently participate in Ecma and wishes to do so, please contact ECMA directly.

        The following organizations and contributors are actively participating in the work of TC49/TG3:
        Eiffel Software, Microsoft Corporation, Novell Corporation, Kahu Research, and Twin Roots.

        Many of the organizations that are currently participating in the TC49/TG3 work have volunteered to mirror this site. The URLs for the mirror sites are:
        - Eiffel Software
        - Microsoft Corporation
        - Novell Corporation
        - Kahu Research
        - Twin Roots

        Available Documents (Documents current as of 27 March 2010)
        The following working draft documents are available:

        - CLI Partition I - Architecture (word/pdf zip)
        - CLI Partition II - Metadata and File Format (word/pdf zip)
        - CLI Partition III - CIL (word/pdf zip)
        - CLI Partition IV - Library (word/pdf zip)
        - CLI Partition V - Binary Formats (word/pdf zip)
        - CLI Partition VI - Annexes (word/pdf zip)
        - Class Library XML (xml zip)
        - Class Library Detailed Specifications (word/pdf zip)

        Annotated Standards

        Members of the Standard committees and others have combined to produce annotated versions of the Standards. These are:
        The Common Language Infrastructure Annotated Standard, James S. Miller & Susann Ragsdale, Addison-Wesley, 2004, ISBN 0-321-15493-2 (based on Edition 2 of Ecma-335)
        C# Annotated Standard, Jon Jagger, Nigel Perry & Peter Sestoft, Morgan Kaufmann, 2007, ISBN 978-0-12-372511-0 (based on Edition 4 of Ecma-334)

        Unfortunately Java's worst problems are:
        1) Owned by Oracle
        2) Most insecure piece of software on Earth
        3) Memory leaks
        4) Unpredictable delays due to stupid garbage collection mechanisms

        Every fool finds a greater one to admire them.
        ~ Bioleau

        A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
        ~ William Blake

        Foolproof systems do not take into account the ingenuity of fools.
        ~ Gene Brown

        In the vain laughter of folly wisdom hears half its applause.
        ~ George Eliot
      • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

        @tonymcs@... hahah, I didn't mean to start a religious war.
  • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

    I think it's completely clear that using the same old political frames for this is deeply wrong. They're rolling Siri out slowly, in part in response to problems like this. Since Siri updates are largely server-side, I'd expect this one to be fixed in a week or two.

    Now, it does depend on what you ask for. "Women's Health Center" may work, "Planned Parenthood" certainly does. The problem came about because on none of the databases that Siri connects to are "abortion clinics" referred to as "abortion clinics." Ask for one, Siri doesn't know what you're looking for. Ask for 'birth control counseling." You'll get some good answers.
    • RE: Why the problem with Siri matters

      @Swift2001 What a helpful comment. I wish I could upvote it.

      I think this is where it would be time for larger companies to start having discussions about what people call things versus what their categories are, but most especially in relation to health and human sexuality. That seems to be where the minefields are, and I think it's something that could be solved - while remaining accurate and neutral.
      Violet Blue
      • Few comments on some points you made in the post

        @Violet Blue:<br><br>1) while abortion was never legal before 1973, this business was thriving -- it was not really hard to get an abortion;<br>2) while Jobs was certainly glad that his mother did not abort him, it was not any political/moral stance of him, since he said to mother of her would be born daughter Lisa that it is her right if she wants an abortion.<br><br>So these Siri's behaviour habits are not necessary coming from Jobs' personal tastes.
      • Something doesn't make sense, dderss


        You claim that Jobs [i]said to mother of her would be born daughter Lisa that it is her right if she wants an abortion.[/i]

        Yet why would he say that if Jobs unequivickly denied paternity by claiming he was sterile?

        Saying it's OK for her to get an abortion (I never read that anywhere), he would be acknowledging that he knew he was the father.

        I don't believe he ever said that.
        William Farrell