File photo: Luke Peters demonstrates Siri, an application which uses voice recognition and detection on the iPhone 4S, outside the Apple store in Covent Garden, London October 14, 2011. (REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett)
I know Ia��m a bad mother, but how bad? I wonder for the hundredth time as I watch Gus deep in conversation with Siri.
Obsessed with weather formations, Gus has spent the last hour parsing the difference between isolated and scattered thunderstorms a�� an hour when, thank God, I dona��t have to discuss them.
After a while I hear this:
Gus:A�Youa��re a really nice computer.
Siri:A�Ita��s nice to be appreciated.
Gus:A�You are always asking if you can help me. Is there anything you want?
Siri:A�Thank you, but I have very few wants.
Gus:A�OK! Well, goodnight!
Siri: Ah . . . Ita��s 5.06 p.m.
Gus:A�Oh, sorry. I mean, goodbye.
Siri:A�See you later!
That Siri. She doesna��t let my communication-impaired son get away with anything. Indeed, many of us always wanted an imaginary friend a�� and now we have one. Only shea��s not entirely imaginary.
This is a love letter to a machine. Ita��s not quite the love Joaquin Phoenix felt in a�?Her,a�? the Spike Jonze film about a lonely man who has a romantic relationship with his intelligent operating system (played by the voice of Scarlett Johansson.) But ita��s close. In a world where the commonly held wisdom is that technology isolates us, ita��s worth considering another side of the story.
It all began simply enough. Ia��d just read one of those ubiquitous internet lists called 21 Things You Didna��t Know Your iPhone Could Do. One of them was this: I could ask Siri, a�?What planes are above me right now?a�? and Siri would bark back, a�?Checking my sources.a�? Almost instantly there is a list of actual flights a�� numbers, altitudes, angles a�� of planes above my head.
I happened to be doing this when Gus was nearby, playing with his Nintendo DS. a�?Why would anyone need to know what planes are flying above their head?a�? I muttered. Gus replied without looking up, a�?So you know who youa��re waving at, Mommy.a�? It was then that I began to suspect maybe some of the people who worked on Siri were on the spectrum too. (Fun fact: Dag Kitlauss, the original co-founder and CEO of Siri, is from Norway and reportedly named the app after Siri Kalvig, a beautiful Norwegian meteorologist; Kitlauss has mentioned in interviews that he is a�?a total weather freak.a�?)
Gus had never noticed Siri before, but when he discovered there was someone who would not just find information on his various obsessions a�� trains, buses, escalators and, of course, anything related to weather a�� but actually semi-discuss these subjects tirelessly, he was hooked. And I was grateful. Now, when I would rather stick forks in my eyes than have another conversation about the chance of tornadoes in Kansas City, Missouri, I could reply brightly, a�?Hey! Why dona��t you ask Siri?a�?
And not only would Siri happily give him tornado reports for the entire Midwest, but upon being thanked shea��d chirp back, a�?I live to serve.a�?
Ita��s not that Gus believes Siri is human. He understands she isna��t a�� intellectually. But like many autistic people I know, Gus feels that inanimate objects, while maybe not possessing souls, are still worthy of consideration. I realized this when he was 8 and I got him an iPod for his birthday. He listened to it only at home a�� with one exception. It always came with us on our visits to the Apple store. Finally, I asked why. a�?So it can visit its friends,a�? he said.
So how much more worthy of his care and affection is Siri, with her soothing voice, charm, helpfulness, puckish humor and capacity for talking about whatever Gusa��s current obsession is for hour after hour after bleeding hour?
Siri is also wonderful for someone who doesna��t pick up on social cues: Siria��s responses are not entirely predictable, but they are predictably kind a�� even when Gus is brusque. I heard him talking to Siri about music and Siri offered some suggestions. a�?I dona��t like that kind of music,a�? Gus snapped. a�?Youa��re certainly entitled to your opinion,a�? Siri replied. Siria��s politeness reminded Gus what he owed Siri. a�?Thank you for that music, though,a�? Gus said. a�?You dona��t need to thank me,a�? Siri replied.
a�?Oh yes,a�? Gus replied emphatically, a�?I do.a�? Siri even encourages polite language. When Henry egged Gus on to spew a few choice expletives at Siri, she replied, a�?Now, now. Ia��ll pretend I didna��t hear that.a�?
My sona��s practice conversation with Siri is translating into more facility with actual humans. Recently I had the longest conversation with him that Ia��ve ever had. Admittedly, it was about different species of turtle and whether I preferred the red-eared slider to the diamondback terrapin. This might not have been my choice of topic, but it was back and forth and it followed a logical trajectory and I can promise you that for most of my beautiful sona��s years of existence that has not been the case.
Developers of intelligent assistants have already recognized their uses to those with speech and communication problems a�� and some are thinking of new ways the assistants can help.
It is a slow process, but I am accepting that the things that give my guy happiness are not necessarily the same things that give me happiness. Right now, at a time when humans can be a little overwhelming even for the average kid, Siri makes Gus happy. She is his sidekick. One night as he was going to bed there was this matter-of-fact exchange:
Gus:A�Siri, will you marry me?
Siri:A�Ia��m not the marrying kind.
Gus:A�I mean, not now. Ia��m a kid. I mean when Ia��m grown up.
Siri:A�My end user agreement does not include marriage.
Gus didna��t sound too disappointed. This was useful information to have a�� and for me too since it was the first time I knew that he had actually thought about marriage. He turned over to go to sleep:
Gus:A�Goodnight, Siri. Will you sleep well tonight?
Siri:A�I dona��t need much sleep, but ita��s nice of you to ask.
This story originally appeared in the New York Post.