We chatted with Siri, for real, and weren't frustrated with her answers (Q&A)

Susan Bennett has done voice-over for airlines, TV, and radio ads. But none of that compares to being the voice behind Siri, a product loved and hated by millions. CNET chatted with her about being Apple's personal iPhone assistant.

Susan Bennett CNN video/Screenshot by CNET
It's been a whirlwind week for Susan Bennett. She's been talking to a lot of people she doesn't know -- including reporters like me, when I called to interview her this week.

But talking to a lot of strangers is not exactly new for Bennett.

She says she's the voice of Siri , Apple's voice-recognition personal assistant app -- the one that talks to millions of iPhone and iPad users, and elicits a specific type of passion when users talk about how frustrating the service can be. (Apple, of course, in its steel-trap ways, would never confirm that Bennett is the golden voice, and did not reply when I asked anyway.)

Bennett's media frenzy began last Friday, when she first revealed to CNN that she is the voice behind Siri (though with the release of iOS 7, she's no longer the only voice for the personal assistant. Users can choose a male voice as well). The reveal came about after The Verge published an article about machine language and text-to-speech technology, titled "How Siri Found its Voice." The accompanying video featured a voice actress recording audio for text-to-speech software, and some viewers assumed that woman, Allison Dufty, was the voice of Siri.

That quagmire convinced Bennett that the time was right to reveal herself. She came forward to CNN -- which inadvertently discovered her secret months before -- for the scoop.

In the CNN piece, she fleshes out the basics of her story, like how she found out her voice was being used on millions of iPhones (a friend recognized her voice and e-mailed her). But this week I called her up to ask about the quirks of talking to yourself, the ins and outs of recording for software, and how much she really uses the personal assistant app. Spoiler: She doesn't really.

Q: How did you get started in voice-over work?
Susan Bennett: I started off in this wacky business as a singer. One day I showed up to a jingle session and the voice actor didn't show up. The studio owner said, "Susan, you don't have an accent; get over here and read this." And I said, "Ohh, I can do this. I can read. I can act." And so that's how it started.

How did you get involved in the Siri project?
Bennett: I wasn't working with Apple at the time. I was working for a text-to-speech company. And what they do is they reorganize the sounds, and form different sentences, and manipulate them, process them in the studios, and my voice happened to be chosen for Siri.

What were the recording sessions like?
Bennett: They were four hours a day for a month -- basically the sentences were created to utilize any combination of vowels, consonants, diphthongs, syllables that could possibly combine in the English language. Sometimes they were nonsensical, and sometimes they were pretty crazy.

Susan Bennett Susan Bennett
Like what?
Bennett: I could not even begin to remember, I'd have to see the script.

What was it like to discover that you were Siri's voice?
Bennett: It was kind of crazy. I'm used to hearing my voice in the airport, or on radio and TV commercials [Bennett does voice-over work for airlines and other businesses], but it was another story to respond to my voice -- coming from a device in my hand. It was pretty weird.

I actually just bought an iPhone 4 before the 4S came out. So I didn't have Siri on the phone for a long time. My husband ran right out and bought the 4S as soon as it came out. And he didn't realize that he had it on the setting where every time he picked it up, Siri would just automatically speak. And she would just say [in Siri voice], "How can I help you? How can I help you?" And he finally just says, "Well you can just go away!" And Siri says, "What did I do to deserve that?"

It's pretty absurd to be talking to yourself on a phone. What's the most fun you've had with using Siri?
Bennett: I usually joke around and try to get her to say that she and I are related. But she disses me. She doesn't act as if she understands the question. She's lying, of course.

Another time I spoke to her, and she really came back with some attitude and I said, "Siri, what are you doing?" and she said, "I'm talking to you." As if she meant, parentheses, "Idiot."

Do you think you have anything in common with the Siri personality that Apple has cooked up?
Bennett: Well, she has a sense of humor. She can have a little attitude at times. I'd say in that way, she's pretty human. Once they smooth out the technology and make her a little less robotic, it'll be really interesting. It'll really be like having a person in your hand.

Apple

Do you ever get frustrated using Siri?
Bennett: To tell you the truth, I don't really use her that much. I've been racing around the country since this thing blew up [coming out as Siri to the press] and I haven't really been using the feature. I haven't had to.

Obviously, people will associate you with this role for a long time. Are you ready to be known as Siri?
Bennett: I really didn't want to divulge it for a while. Because most of us voice-over folks, we kind of live in our booths, and we're happy to be anonymous. But I knew that once I disclosed the information, that I would not be anonymous. So I really had to weigh that.

The thing that made me really decide to do it was that my son had just been bugging me about it for a long time saying, you really need to do this. It's such a great opportunity. Then after The Verge video, I just realized that people really want to know. And I thought, well the timing is right.

Apple is notoriously tight-lipped about everything. Has the company given you any flak about coming out as Siri?
Bennett: Apple's whole thing, as you say, is to try to stay distant, and keep the mystery alive. They don't want people to associate a face to the voice. They want people to imagine the person they are listening to, rather than know the person they are speaking to.

 

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