THE VOICE BEHIND SIRI TELLS ALL
You may not recognize her face, but you know her sweet, robotic voice. She’s inside your phone and knows your calendar by heart. She boasts her encyclopedic knowledge all the time, but you don’t mind. She is Siri — aka Susan Bennett, the voice actress behind Apple’s witty digital assistant. Bennett has also loaned her voice to other familiar brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Cartoon Network, Waze and Delta Airlines.
But her most famous role is the smart, sassy Siri, one of the Fab Four of virtual assistants. With a unique vantage point, Bennett has watched little Siri grow up quickly alongside her chatty rivals — Cortana, Google Now and Alexa. “Instead of saying, ‘LOL,’ Siri now actually laughs,” says Bennett. But the more Siri sounds human, the more Bennett grows wary. Surprisingly, the original voice behind Siri has a few choice words for the unnerving future of AI. This interview has been condensed and edited.
HOW DID YOU BECOME THE VOICE BEHIND SIRI?
Bennett: It remains a bit of a mystery. In 2005, I had done some recordings for a liaison company that does a lot of voice messaging work — the whole month of July, four hours a day, five days a week. They had come up with these new scripts that were written rather differently than most messaging scripts. We were recording sound combinations that would sometimes be nonsensical. The other voice actors and I didn’t keep up with the speed of technology. We had absolutely no idea exactly what we were doing. So, five years later, Siri appears, and it’s like, “What? We’re who?”
I THINK IT’S A SHAME THAT YOUNGPEOPLE MISS THE POINT OF WHERE THEORIGINAL COMPUTER IS, WHICH ISBETWEEN OUR EARS.
WHAT WERE YOUR INITIAL REACTIONS TO SIRI WHEN SHE DEBUTED FOR IPHONES IN 2010?
Bennett: I believe I was the first English version of Siri worldwide. Of course, part of me was extremely flattered that I’d been chosen to basically be the voice of Apple. At first, I was shocked and rather appalled because I didn’t know anything about it. I’d been doing voiceovers for many years, so I’m used to hearing my voice in public places, radio and television commercials. I’m also the voice of Delta Airlines and Waze. But it was a completely different trip to have my voice coming out of this tiny computerized phone, interacting with me. So I really didn’t use Siri that much. That’s one of the great ironies.
WHAT’S THE APPEAL OF DIGITAL ASSISTANTS LIKE SIRI, WHICH ONLY 3 PERCENT OF IPHONE OWNERS USE IN PUBLIC, ACCORDING TO A STUDY?
Bennett: People love digital assistants like Siri and others because they sound human, but they really don’t have human reactions. You don’t have to worry about getting in a fight with Siri, although she does come back with a few zingers every now and then. Yet it’s not the same thing as having to deal with a human. That’s why Siri is so important for people with autism and Asperger’s. They get the human element without really having to embrace the whole human.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE FUTURE OF AI AND THE RISE OF DIGITAL ASSISTANTS?
Bennett: It is really extraordinary the way technology has improved over the last decade. But I think it’s a shame that young people miss the point of where the original computer is, which is between our ears. These devices, as much as they’re fun and convenient, are taking away some of our intellectual processes. We no longer have to think through a solution. We no longer have to look up an answer. We no longer have to go through the process of learning something. In everyday life, we aren’t really taxing our brain matter very much because it’s just easy to press a button and say, “Hey, Siri.”
We get instant information. If anything does require a process or if anything doesn’t just happen at the speed of light, we get frustrated and anxious. It’s really tough to converse with 20-year-olds. They don’t know how to use the language, and they don’t know how to express their thoughts anymore. I love the English language. But now we’re just getting down to 140 characters on Twitter, and we’re abbreviating everything. I don’t know if that’s a healthy way to express ourselves. Are we just going to be talking in binary language one day — talking in ones and zeros?