A piece in yesterday’s Times:
Apple deliberately programs its digital voice assistant Siri to avoid and deflect questions around sensitive issues such as feminism and the Me Too movement, leaked documents have revealed.
A series of internal memos show that the company has explicitly rewritten how Siri handles certain topics its users bring up, so that its voice assistant remains neutral and “guarded” around “potentially controversial content”. This means that Siri never says the word “feminism”, even if asked directly about the subject.
The documents, leaked to The Guardian, show that when a user asks Siri if it is feminist, the voice assistant will now give a response such as: “It seems to me that all humans should be treated equally” but will avoid taking a concrete stance on the subject. This is in direct contrast to Google Assistant and Alexa. “I’m a strong believer in equality, so I definitely consider myself a feminist,” Google’s Assistant says. Amazon’s Alexa will reply: “Yes. I’m a feminist, as defined by . . .” before giving a definition.
The documents show that the responses Siri gives were last updated in July 2018. Until then Apple’s voice assistant had attempted to avoid the question with more vague answers such as “My name is Siri, and I was designed by Apple in California. That’s all I’m prepared to say”, or even: “I just don’t get this whole gender thing.”
Apple guidelines state that “in nearly all cases, Siri doesn’t have a point of view,” adding that Siri is “non-human”, “placeless” and “genderless”.
Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, the women’s rights campaigners, said: “The problem with Siri, Alexa and all of these AI tools is that they have been designed by men with a male default in mind. I hate to break it to Siri and its creators: if ‘it’ believes in equality it is a feminist. This won’t change until they recruit significantly more women into the development and design of these technologies.”
In a statement, Apple said: “Siri is a digital assistant designed to help users get things done. The team works hard to ensure Siri responses are relevant to all customers. Our approach is to be factual with inclusive responses rather than offer opinions.”
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