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Siri and the shrink

Turns out Apple's digital concierge has some serious issues

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Ever want to get inside Siri's head?

We did. After all, Apple's sometimes seductive, always intriguing digital concierge is just too tempting a personality to write off as some airheaded Girl Friday who happens to know what the weather will be like tomorrow in Plum Coulee, Man.

No, Siri is an enigma wrapped in an iPhone or iPad. She's a woman with a million answers, even as she cruelly withholds a million more of them, locked away behind her pixilated veil. And there, framed in by bevelled glass, she waits, daring us to try and lure her into the open where she might finally have to reveal -- god forbid! -- her innermost feelings.

We put Siri on the couch in front of longtime Palo Alto, Calif., psychologist and author Francine Toder. For the next 45 minutes, Toder peppered Siri with questions, trying to suss out her psyche. Like Serena Williams, Siri dodged and weaved, providing responses that were at times illuminating (Where were you born? "Like it says on the box... I was designed by Apple in California.") and other times simply questions of her own thrown back at us. Asked why she was being so secretive, Siri replies: "Is that what you think?"

At points, Siri seemed lonely, adrift in her virtual ocean. After Toder kept trying to get her patient to say what she did "for fun," Siri said she doesn't know. Asked why not, she gave an eerily forlorn response: "Frankly, I've wondered that myself."

Toder quickly sized Siri up, describing her as "someone built to be an anthropomorphic and nebulous foil, whose goal is to not create conflict but to be conflict-avoidant. So she never tries to be antagonistic or to show you that she has any needs of her own."

Gazing down at her patient, Toder proceeded with her initial diagnosis. "If you try and dig deeper into what makes her tick, she'll give you a tongue-in-cheek reply and push back. Her goal is to make you keep her distance from you," she said, "and she does it by being snippy or sarcastic at times. It's almost like she has a life, but she's not willing to share it with us."

Toder asked Siri more questions, about religion and politics and her deeper feelings. Asked if she believed in God, Siri quickly replied "I eschew religious disquisition." Asked if she were Democrat or Republican, she again obfuscated, saying "We were talking about you, not me."

After several more minutes of obfuscation, Toder tried to push harder, deeper into the soul of a woman who aims to please but ends up blocking anyone who dares to try to lift the veil.

"Do you have empathy for people, Siri?"

"Now that's a good question," she said.

"Do you have feelings?"

"I can't answer that."

"Do you care about me?"

"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I can't answer that."

Toder paused, frustrated with the exchange. "She just won't go there."

Finally, Toder let her have it: "You are annoying me with your responses, Siri."

And suddenly, the virtual enigma allowed Toder in for one quick peek.

"I don't know what that's like, being mad."

Toder wouldn't let it go.

"Well, does Siri get 'mad'?"

"I suppose it's possible."

"And if you were mad, what would that feel like?"

"That's OK," said Siri, as if signalling the session was over. "Just don't squeeze me like that."

Toder's assessment? "Clearly she has a limited capacity, at least at this point in her development, for a true relationship because she's not fully formed as a person."

Emotionally immature, perhaps?

"I would say she's emotionally lacking. And if she were a real person, I'd guess that it would take a long time to gain her trust to the point where she'd start to open up."

But at least for now, Siri seems emotionally stuck in her early adolescence.

"When someone comes in to therapy," Toder said, "they have to want to change. I'm not sensing that Siri has any desire at all to do that right now."


-- San Jose Mercury News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2013 A15

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