The Null Device

2011/10/24

Yet another titan of computing has died; this time, John McCarthy, the artificial intelligence pioneer and inventor of the Lisp programming language. He was 84.

ai cs john mccarthy lisp obituary rip 0 Share

And more on the subject of Siri; while the technology is available only on Apple's iOS platform (and currently only on the latest and greatest iPhone), an Android software company have taken it upon themselves to make their own version, in an 8-hour hackathon. It's named Iris (see what they did there?), and it sort of works:

Me: Remind me at 9pm to go and buy milk
It Recognised: remindme at 9 pm to go in hawaii
It Replied: I have two pets.
Me: Where is siberia
Replied: Wherever you make it I guess
Q: Where can I get a recipe for cheesecake?
A: En la esquina, con minifalda.
("In the corner, wearing a miniskirt.")
If one views this as a competitor to Siri, it falls well short (even without the bizarre voice-recognition results, it doesn't seem to contain the sort of evolving model of the user, their relationships and preferences, and the current context that makes a system like Siri work), though one could hardly expect this from an 8-hour hacking session. (If one views it as a publicity stunt to promote Dexetra's other apps, it'll probably be far more successful.) However, as a surrealist tool for injecting chaos into the lives of those who use it, it looks to be far superior, escaping the shackles of bourgeois practicality that constrain Apple's more polished product. Iris looks to be a virtual assistant André Breton could love.

ai android apple culture fake siri surrealism tech 0 Share

Apple's latest iPhone, the 4S, comes with a feature named Siri, an intelligent agent (based on technology from a US military AI research programme) which answers spoken questions in natural English, using web services, the current environment and a constantly evolving profile of the user and their preferences to make sense of ambiguous queries like "will I need an umbrella tomorrow?", and speaks the results back to the user—in a female voice in the US and Australia, but a male one in the UK. Apple haven't explained the reasons for the difference, but there are theories:

Jeremy Wagstaff, who runs technology consultancy Loose Wire Organisation, says: "Americans speak loudly and clearly and are usually in a hurry, so it makes sense for them to have a female voice because it has the pitch and range. British people mumble and obey authority, so they need someone authoritative." Which, apparently, still means male.
There's more historical context here (which talks about disembodied machine voices having been female for a long time, since telephone operators* and WW2-era navigation systems, female voices being used in railway station announcement systems because their higher frequencies carry better against the train noise, evil computers in films being presented as male, and BMW having to recall a female-voiced navigation system in the 1990s because of complaints from German men who refused to take direction from a woman).

There's also a piece in the Atlantic about why many electronic devices designed to assist have female voices. It looks predominantly at systems in the US, and concludes that, in America at least, female voices are perceived to go better with the role of assistant—competent, level-headed, and unthreateningly loyal. Or, in other words, everybody wants to be Don Draper.

Which doesn't answer the question of why (according to Apple's in-house cultural anthropologists, anyway) British users feel more comfortable with male-voiced virtual assistants. Could it be the lack of the famous 100-watt smiles of the American service industry (as per the US psychologist who categorised British smiles as grimaces of acquiescence)? An ingrained sense of social hierarchy and/or traditional acceptance of class privilege which makes authoritative male voices more acceptable in Britain? (I wonder whether refined-sounding male British voices would be popular with American users; after all, I imagine that quite a few people wouldn't mind their virtual assistant to have a British butler persona.) Or perhaps the residual trauma of Thatcherism makes female voices with any hint of authority a hard sell in Britain? And why does Australia get the female voice option by default? Is Australia more "American" than "British" in this sense? Or is the preference for male voices some peculiarly British anomaly among the English-speaking nations?

* If I recall correctly, the very first telephone operators in the late 19th century were boys, of the same background who would have been employed in clerical tasks. They tended to horse around and play pranks too much, though, so they were replaced with female operators after a few years. Throughout living memory, the typical telephone operator (where those still existed) has been a woman.

ai apple culture gender siri tech 3 Share

Scandinavia And The World is a web comic drawn, in anime fan art fashion, by a Danish illustrator, and exploring Scandinavian culture and stereotypes (and, occasionally, the rest of the world). In it, Denmark is never without a beer bottle (the Danes, you see, don't have the punitively high alcohol taxes and state liquour monopolies that are the norm in the Nordic world), Norway is always carrying a fish, Sweden may or may not be gay and Iceland is a bit nuts; with cameo appearances by America (a loud, not-too-bright bigot and his sister, Paris Hilton) and England (who wears a monocle and speaks like a P.G. Wodehouse character and/or Hollywood villain). There are comic strips on topics ranging from mutual stereotypes of the other Scandinavian countries and the differences in the sound of their languages to the gloomy nature of Nordic cinema and the varieties of putrefied fish consumed in the Nordic countries. Well, when it isn't veering off into fits of anime-otaku sexual innuendo.

(via David Gerard) comics culture denmark finland iceland norway scandinavia sweden 0 Share