Trusting the Voice in the Computer

Post from Jean Thilmany:

Jean Thilmany

I’m just putting this out there. I don’t trust Siri, the voice-recognition program on the iPhone 4S that you “talk to as you would a person” and “it understands what you say” and returns relevant information. (The quotes are from Apple’s web site.)

Problem is, Siri seldom understands what I say. And I don’t think I overmuch mumble. It’s to the point where my six-year-old son has devised a game asking her (okay, we do anthropomorphize Siri—or whatever term you’d use for a disembodied voice) common questions just to hear the hilarious-to-him results. “Who is Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s Assistant on The Muppet Show?”

“Searching the web for Spongebob?”

She’s frequently tapped as a guest on National Public Radio’s Marketplace Tech Report and has similar things to say.

For example, here’s a transcript from the May 31 show, (which can also be found by clicking here).

Here to discuss recent developments at Apple, our regular expert on Apple, Siri, the personal assistant from the iPhone 4S.

Host John Moe: Hi Siri.

Siri: I didn’t find any meetings.

Moe: I didn’t ask you for any meetings. I was just saying hello.

Siri: Hello.

Moe: Apple’s CEO Tim Cook says TV is an area of intense interest for the company, but in a recent interview, he said there was no imminent launch of an Apple television set, despite a lot of rumors that it’s on the way. Siri, is Apple making a TV?

Siri: I haven’t a clue.

Moe: Oh, that’s how it’s going to be. OK, let’s move on. Next item. Some photos have leaked online of what looks like a case for a new iPhone, but with a much bigger screen. Siri, will the iPhone 5 be bigger?

Siri: There’s no iPhone number for Will Ferrell in your contacts.

Moe: Wait, who’s talking about Will Ferrell.

Siri: Checking on that for you. OK. How about a web search for who’s talking about Will Ferrell?

Moe: No no. Forget it. OK, last thing. Tim Cook also says that he wants to use you, Siri, in more Apple products. Siri, where are you going next?

Siri: Wherever you are. That’s where I am.

Nor do I trust the voice-recognition computerized woman that rides aboard my 2012 Ford Fiesta. She gives me similarly unreliable results. When I asked her to call my husband, Dan, recently she began automatically dialing my grandma, Jean Van Drimmelen. This was long past my grandmother’s bedtime—and I couldn’t figure out how to stop the call!

But researchers at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., beg to differ with my unscientific findings. They found that computerized aids that include person-like characteristics inspire trust and dependence among adults.

Richard Pak, a psychology associate professor at the university, examined how human decision-making is affected by a human-like aid. He and his team members’ study focused on adults’ trust, dependence, and performance while using a computerized decision-making aid for persons with diabetes.

The study is one of the first to examine how the design of decision-support aids on consumer devices can influence the level of trust that users place in that system and how much they use it, Pak said. The design and look of an aid are important elements for designers because of the potential dangers associated when users trust unreliable decision aids or lack trust for reliable aids simply because of the their appearance, he added.

“Figuring out how trust is affected by the design of computerized aids is important because we want people to trust and use only reliable aids,” Pak said.

Pak’s study was published July 17 in the journal Ergonomics. The journal article was co-authored by Clemson researchers Nicole Fink, Margaux Price, Brock Bass and Lindsay Sturre.

For now, I’m not making health decisions based on Siri or any other computerized aid’s input. Myself, I don’t think the time is ripe for that. Maybe in the future. After all, Siri doesn’t even know the name of my favorite Muppet, Beaker.

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

July 2012

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