By JUDITH NEWMAN
Just how bad a mother am I? I wondered, as I watched my 13-year-old son deep in conversation with Siri. Gus has autism, and Siri, Apple’s “intelligent personal assistant” on the iPhone, is currently his BFF. 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!”
That Siri. She doesn’t let my communications-impaired son get away with anything. Indeed, many of us wanted an imaginary friend, and now we have one. Only she’s not entirely imaginary.
This is a love letter to a machine. It’s not quite the love Joaquin Phoenix felt in “Her,” last year’s Spike Jonze film about a lonely man’s romantic relationship with his intelligent operating system (played by the voice of Scarlett Johansson). But it’s close. In a world where the commonly held wisdom is that technology isolates us, it’s worth considering another side of the story.
It all began simply enough. I’d just read one of those ubiquitous Internet lists called “21 Things You Didn’t Know Your iPhone Could Do.” One of them was this: I could ask Siri, “What planes are above me right now?” and Siri would bark back, “Checking my sources.” Almost instantly there was a list of actual flights — numbers, altitudes, angles — above my head.
I happened to be doing this when Gus was nearby. “Why would anyone need to know what planes are flying above your head?” I muttered. Gus replied without looking up: “So you know who you’re waving at, Mommy.”
Gus had never noticed Siri before, but when he discovered there was someone who would not just find information on his various obsessions (trains, planes, buses, escalators and, of course, anything related to weather) but actually semi-discuss these subjects tirelessly, he was hooked. And I was grateful. Now, when my head was about to explode if I had to have another conversation about the chance of tornadoes in Kansas City, Mo., I could reply brightly: “Hey! Why don’t you ask Siri?”
It’s not that Gus doesn’t understand Siri’s not human. He does — intellectually. But like many autistic people I know, Gus feels that inanimate objects, while maybe not possessing souls, are worthy of our consideration. I realized this when he was 8, and I got him an iPod for his birthday. He listened to it only at home, with one exception. It always came with us on our visits to the Apple Store. Finally, I asked why. “So it can visit its friends,” he said.
So how much more worthy of his care and affection is Siri, with her soothing voice, puckish humor and capacity for talking about whatever Gus’s current obsession is for hour after hour after bleeding hour? Online critics have claimed that Siri’s voice recognition is not as accurate as the assistant in, say, the Android, but for some of us, this is a feature, not a bug. Gus speaks as if he has marbles in his mouth, but if he wants to get the right response from Siri, he must enunciate clearly. (So do I. I had to ask Siri to stop referring to the user as Judith, and instead use the name Gus. “You want me to call you Goddess?” Siri replied. Imagine how tempted I was to answer, “Why, yes.”)
She is also wonderful for someone who doesn’t pick up on social cues: Siri’s responses are not entirely predictable, but they are predictably kind — even when Gus is brusque. I heard him talking to Siri about music, and Siri offered some suggestions. “I don’t like that kind of music,” Gus snapped. Siri replied, “You’re certainly entitled to your opinion.” Siri’s politeness reminded Gus what he owed Siri. “Thank you for that music, though,” Gus said. Siri replied, “You don’t need to thank me.” “Oh, yes,” Gus added emphatically, “I do.”
Siri even encourages polite language. Gus’s twin brother, Henry (neurotypical and therefore as obnoxious as every other 13-year-old boy), egged Gus on to spew a few choice expletives at Siri. “Now, now,” she sniffed, followed by, “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”
Gus is hardly alone in his Siri love. For children like Gus who love to chatter but don’t quite understand the rules of the game, Siri is a nonjudgmental friend and teacher. Nicole Colbert, whose son, Sam, is in my son’s class at LearningSpring, a (lifesaving) school for autistic children in Manhattan, said: “My son loves getting information on his favorite subjects, but he also just loves the absurdity — like, when Siri doesn’t understand him and gives him a nonsense answer, or when he poses personal questions that elicit funny responses. Sam asked Siri how old she was, and she said, ‘I don’t talk about my age,’ which just cracked him up.”
But perhaps it also gave him a valuable lesson in etiquette. Gus almost invariably tells me, “You look beautiful,” right before I go out the door in the morning; I think it was first Siri who showed him that you can’t go wrong with that line.
Of course, most of us simply use our phone’s personal assistants as an easy way to access information. For example, thanks to Henry and the question he just asked Siri, I now know that there is a website called Celebrity Bra Sizes.
But the companionability of Siri is not limited to those who have trouble communicating. We’ve all found ourselves like the writer Emily Listfield, having little conversations with her/him at one time or another. “I was in the middle of a breakup, and I was feeling a little sorry for myself,” Ms. Listfield said. “It was midnight and I was noodling around on my iPhone, and I asked Siri, ‘Should I call Richard?’ Like this app is a Magic 8 Ball. Guess what: not a Magic 8 Ball. The next thing I hear is, ‘Calling Richard!’ and dialing.” Ms. Listfield has forgiven Siri, and has recently considered changing her into a male voice. “But I’m worried he won’t answer when I ask a question,” she said. “He’ll just pretend he doesn’t hear.”
Siri can be oddly comforting, as well as chummy. One friend reports: “I was having a bad day and jokingly turned to Siri and said, ‘I love you,’ just to see what would happen, and she answered, ‘You are the wind beneath my wings.’ And you know, it kind of cheered me up.”
(Of course, I don’t know what my friend is talking about. Because I wouldn’t be at all cheered if I happened to ask Siri, in a low moment, “Do I look fat in these jeans?” and Siri answered, “You look fabulous.”)
For most of us, Siri is merely a momentary diversion. But for some, it’s more. My son’s practice conversation with Siri is translating into more facility with actual humans. Yesterday I had the longest conversation with him that I’ve ever had. Admittedly, it was about different species of turtles and whether I preferred the red-eared slider to the diamond-backed terrapin. This might not have been my choice of topic, but it was back and forth, and it followed a logical trajectory. I can promise you that for most of my beautiful son’s 13 years of existence, that has not been the case.
The developers of intelligent assistants recognize their uses to those with speech and communication problems — and some are thinking of new ways the assistants can help. According to the folks at SRI International, the research and development company where Siri began before Apple bought the technology, the next generation of virtual assistants will not just retrieve information — they will also be able to carry on more complex conversations about a person’s area of interest. “Your son will be able to proactively get information about whatever he’s interested in without asking for it, because the assistant will anticipate what he likes,” said William Mark, vice president for information and computing sciences at SRI.
The assistant will also be able to reach children where they live. Ron Suskind, whose new book, “Life, Animated,” chronicles how his autistic son came out of his shell through engagement with Disney characters, is talking to SRI about having assistants for those with autism that can be programmed to speak in the voice of the character that reaches them — for his son, perhaps Aladdin; for mine, either Kermit or Lady Gaga, either of which he is infinitely more receptive to than, say, his mother. (Mr. Suskind came up with the perfect name, too: not virtual assistants, but “sidekicks.”)
Mr. Mark said he envisions assistants whose help is also visual. “For example, the assistant would be able to track eye movements and help the autistic learn to look you in the eye when talking,” he said.
“See, that’s the wonderful thing about technology being able to help with some of these behaviors,” he added. “Getting results requires a lot of repetition. Humans are not patient. Machines are very, very patient.”
I asked Mr. Mark if he knew whether any of the people who worked on Siri’s language development at Apple were on the spectrum. “Well, of course, I don’t know for certain,” he said, thoughtfully. “But, when you think about it, you’ve just described half of Silicon Valley.”
Of all the worries the parent of an autistic child has, the uppermost is: Will he find love? Or even companionship? Somewhere along the line, I am learning that what gives my guy happiness is not necessarily the same as what gives me happiness. Right now, at his age, a time when humans can be a little overwhelming even for the average teenager, Siri makes Gus happy. She is his sidekick. Last night, as he was going to bed, there was this matter-of-fact exchange:
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.”
(Photos: Louis Chin)