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Apple's Siri won't win over Miss Manners

With millions of people already using the new iPhone 4S, and many more to come, get ready for an earful of annoying public chatter between people and the robotic personal assistant.

Some will find it funny to pepper Siri with questions like 'Siri, talk dirty to me.' But after awhile it won't be funny to everyone else.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

commentary We start by laughing. We go to S**t That Siri Says and chuckle at how asking Apple's new virtual assistant to talk dirty to you generates the response, "Humus. Compost. Pumice. Silt. Gravel." Or, "I'm not that kind of personal assistant." Because, hey, it is funny to hear Siri wax philosophical or crack wise--or utterly misunderstand a command.

But beneath the levity, there's a problem brewing, one that has yet to pop above the surface: the inevitability that soon there will be legions of people talking to their phones in public--and having the phones' disembodied, robotic voices talk back to them. And we won't be able to avoid it.

Since the iPhone 4S came out only last Friday, you probably haven't seen this phenomenon in the wild yet. But maybe you've come across it with friends who already have the massively popular new device. Sitting over dinner perhaps, or at a party, someone brings out their new 4S and gives a demonstration of Siri. "Siri, where am I?" "Siri, what's the meaning of life?" Siri ponders, and then responds. Everyone is amazed--and wants to try it themselves.

But I'm here to tell you, I'm don't think it's going to stay a light-hearted novelty for long, at least not for those without a 4S. Soon, it seems safe to say, we're going to be surrounded by people talking to their phones, trying to find directions, or the weather, or the closest Indian restaurant, or asking random silly questions--and having to hear Siri respond. It's going to be everywhere, and on a scale we've not experienced before.

The arrival of Siri, of course, is hardly the beginning of people talking to their devices and ignoring the effect on people around them. It began years ago with the first headsets that allowed hands-free phone calls. If you were around then, you may remember just how odd it was in the beginning to see people walking down the street, seemingly talking to themselves--until you noticed that little device hanging off their ear.

And of course, the iPhone 4S isn't even the first phone to offer voice-activated information. Android phones have had that feature for some time now, and Vlingo has offered some of the same features to iPhone users, including the ability to have text spoken back to you.

Siri gives users the ability to look up all kinds of things, and to ask the tool philosophical questions. That is part of the problem. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

But unless I'm missing something, there aren't people everywhere jabbering away at their Droids. And most likely, it's because Google's approach is seen by those who use it as pretty much just a tool, and a useful one at that, and services like Vlingo haven't been massively adopted. Plus, people are probably using these features mainly when they're driving.

Along comes Siri, and the millions upon millions of people who have it built into their new iPhone 4S. And the fact that the tool's built-in artificial intelligence makes it something that people will use in places well beyond their cars. I expect to see the slow, steady growth, at restaurants, on the bus, on sidewalks everywhere, at school, and at work, of people talking to, and with, Siri. And what seems funny today may well begin to drive the rest of us crazy before too long.

I've tried to think about why. Today, one-sided cell phone discussions in public are already a plague we're more than fed up with. A study published last year explained why listening to just one side of such a conversation is annoying, yet impossible to ignore: "The researchers argue that such 'half-alogues,' as they dub them, make for dissonant eavesdropping because they are unpredictable. The less information we glean from a conversation, the harder our brains work to make sense of what we hear and the more difficult it is to stop listening."

Some might say that Siri solves that problem by closing the loop and giving bystanders both sides of the conversation to listen to--a person's voice and Siri's robotic tones. But this is where I think the problem lies.

It's one thing to overhear conversations between people in public. Our minds are built to handle the exchange of human voices without getting distracted. We process the voices and shuffle them off to the background. But a back and forth between a normal voice and that of a robot? That dissonance is just what will grab our attention and force us to listen. Whether we want to or not.

Not everyone is going to have problems with this, of course. In "The Atlantic" the other day, Tim Maly wrote of "How Siri's Robotic Voice will Help her Win Your Heart." Essentially, he wrote, "Siri doesn't sound human--and that's why you'll forgive her when she doesn't understand."

Still, this approach doesn't tackle the issue at hand--that we're soon going to be surrounded by people interacting with Siri, and with all the other services that come along in the near future that replicate it. And that there's little we're going to be able to do to get away from these odd exchanges.

Is there an answer? Surely, there will be loud calls for more people to wear headsets. And no doubt, many people will--taking the one-way conversation problem back to the one we're already used to. But I expect that large numbers of people will go about their daily lives peppering Siri with questions in public, blind to the pain they're causing, oblivious to the daggers being shot their way from people all around them.

I don't have an iPhone 4S, and I have to admit, I'm a bit jealous of those who do. I recognize that Siri is an exciting feature, and I do wish I could use it. But I'm also happy that for now at least, I'm not going to be one of the people on the receiving end of those dagger stares.