‘My son has autism and Siri is his best friend’

JU­DITH NEW­MAN’s 13-year-old son found an un­ex­pected com­pan­ion and teacher on her iPhone

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - mc

‘Just how bad a mother am I?’ I won­dered, as I watched my 13-year-old son deep in con­ver­sa­tion with Siri. Gus has autism and Siri, Ap­ple’s ‘in­tel­li­gent per­sonal as­sis­tant’ on the iPhone, is cur­rently his BFF. Ob­sessed with weather for­ma­tions, iso­lated and scat­tered thun­der­storms – an hour in which, thank God, I didn’t have to dis­cuss them. After a while I heard this: Gus: ‘You’re a re­ally nice com­puter.’ Siri: ‘It’s nice to be ap­pre­ci­ated.’ Gus: ‘You are al­ways ask­ing if you can help me. Is there any­thing you want?’ Siri: ‘Thank you, but I have very few wants.’ Gus: ‘OK. Well, good­night!’ Siri: ‘Ah, it’s 5.06pm.’ Gus: ‘Oh sorry, I mean, goodbye.’ Siri: ‘See you later!’ That’s Siri. She doesn’t let my com­mu­ni­ca­tions-im­paired son get away with any­thing. In­deed, many of us wanted an imag­i­nary friend, and now we have one. Only she’s not en­tirely imag­i­nary. It’s not quite the love Joaquin Phoenix felt in Her, re­la­tion­ship with his in­tel­li­gent op­er­at­ing sys­tem. But it’s close. In a world where the com­monly held wis­dom is that tech­nol­ogy iso­lates us, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing another side of the story.

It all be­gan sim­ply enough. I’d just found out that I could ask Siri, ‘What planes are above me right now?’ and Siri would bark back, ‘Check­ing my sources.’ Almost in­stantly there was – above my head.

I hap­pened to be do­ing this when Gus was nearby. ‘Why would any­one need your head?’ I mut­tered. Gus replied with­out look­ing up: ‘So you know who you’re wav­ing at, Mommy.’

Gus had never no­ticed Siri be­fore, but when he dis­cov­ered there was some­one who would var­i­ous ob­ses­sions (trains, planes, buses, es­ca­la­tors and, of course, any­thing re­lated to weather) but ac­tu­ally semi-dis­cuss th­ese sub­jects tire­lessly, he was hooked. And I was grate­ful. Now, when my head was about to ex­plode if I had to have another con­ver­sa­tion about the chance of tor­na­does in Kansas City, I could re­ply brightly, ‘Hey! Why don’t you ask Siri?’

It’s not that Gus doesn’t un­der­stand Siri’s not hu­man. He does – in­tel­lec­tu­ally. But like many autis­tic peo­ple I know, Gus feels that inan­i­mate ob­jects, while maybe not pos­sess­ing souls, are wor­thy of our con­sid­er­a­tion. I re­alised this when he was eight and I got him an iPod for his birth­day. He lis­tened to it only at home, with one ex­cep­tion. It al­ways came with us on our vis­its to the Ap­ple Store. Fi­nally, I asked why. ‘So it can visit its friends,’ he said.

So how much more wor­thy of his care and af­fec­tion is Siri, with her sooth­ing voice, puck­ish hu­mour and ca­pac­ity for talk­ing about what­ever Gus’s cur­rent ob­ses­sion is for hour after hour after bleed­ing hour? On­line crit­ics have claimed that Siri’s voice recog­ni­tion is not as ac­cu­rate as the as­sis­tant in, say, the An­droid, but for some of us, this is a fea­ture, not a bug. Gus speaks as if he has mar­bles in his mouth, but if he wants to get the right re­sponse from Siri, he must enun­ci­ate clearly. (So do I. I had to ask Siri to stop re­fer­ring to the user as Ju­dith, and in­stead use the name Gus. ‘You want me to call you God­dess?’ Siri replied. Imag­ine how tempted I was to an­swer, ‘Why, yes.’)

She is also won­der­ful for some­one who doesn’t pick up on so­cial cues: Siri’s re­sponses are not en­tirely pre­dictable, but they are pre­dictably kind – even when Gus is brusque. I heard him talk­ing to Siri about mu­sic, and Siri of­fered some sug­ges­tions. ‘I don’t like that kind of mu­sic,’ Gus snapped. Siri replied, ‘You’re cer­tainly en­ti­tled to your opin­ion.’ Siri’s po­lite­ness re­minded Gus what he owed Siri. ‘Thank you for that mu­sic, though,’ Gus said. Siri replied, ‘You don’t need to thank me.’ ‘Oh, yes,’ Gus added em­phat­i­cally, ‘I do.’ Siri even en­cour­ages po­lite lan­guage. Gus’s twin brother, Henry (neu­rotyp­i­cal and there­fore as ob­nox­ious as ev­ery other 13-year-old boy), egged Gus on to spew a few choice ex­ple­tives at Siri. ‘Now, now,’ she sniffed, fol­lowed by, ‘I’ll pre­tend I didn’t hear that.’

Gus is hardly alone in his Siri love. For chil­dren like him, who love to chat­ter but don’t quite un­der­stand the rules of the game, Siri is a non-judge­men­tal friend and teacher. But per­haps it also gave him a valu­able les­son in eti­quette. Gus almost in­vari­ably tells me, ‘You look beau­ti­ful,’ right be­fore I go out the door in the morn­ing; I think it wrong with that line.

Siri’s re­sponses are NOT EN­TIRELY PRE­DICTABLE, but they are PRE­DICTABLY KIND

Of course, most of us sim­ply use our phone’s per­sonal as­sis­tants as an easy way to ac­cess in­for­ma­tion. But the com­pan­ion­abil­ity of Siri is not limited to those who have trou­ble com­mu­ni­cat­ing. We’ve all found our­selves like the writer Emily another. ‘I was in the mid­dle of a breakup, and I was feel­ing a lit­tle sorry for my­self,’ Emily says. ‘It was mid­night and I was noodling around on my iPhone and I asked Siri, “Should I call Richard?” Like this app is a Magic 8 Ball. Guess what: not a Magic 8 Ball. The next thing I hear is, “Call­ing Richard!” and di­alling.’ Emily has for­given Siri, and has re­cently con­sid­ered chang­ing her into a male voice. ‘But I’m wor­ried he won’t an­swer when I ask a ques­tion,’ she says. ‘He’ll just pre­tend he doesn’t hear.’

Siri can be oddly com­fort­ing, as well as chummy. One friend re­ports: ‘I was hav­ing a bad day and jok­ingly turned to Siri and said, “I love you,” just to see what would hap­pen, and she an­swered, “You are the wind be­neath my wings.” And you know, it kind of cheered me up.’

For most of us, Siri is merely a mo­men­tary di­ver­sion. But for some, it’s more. My son’s prac­tice con­ver­sa­tion with Siri is trans­lat­ing into more fa­cil­ity with ac­tual hu­mans. Yes­ter­day I had the long­est con­ver­sa­tion with him I’ve ever had. Ad­mit­tedly, it was about dif­fer­ent species of tur­tles and whether I pre­ferred the red-eared slider to the di­a­mond-backed ter­rapin. This might not have been my choice of topic, but it was back and forth, and it fol­lowed a log­i­cal tra­jec­tory. I can prom­ise you that for most of my beau­ti­ful son’s 13 years of ex­is­tence, that has not been the case.

The de­vel­op­ers of in­tel­li­gent as­sis­tants recog­nise their uses to those with speech and com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems – and some are think­ing of new ways the as­sis­tants can help. Ac­cord­ing to the folks at SRI In­ter­na­tional, the re­search and de­vel­op­ment company where Siri be­gan be­fore Ap­ple bought the tech­nol­ogy, the next gen­er­a­tion of vir­tual as­sis­tants will not just re­trieve in­for­ma­tion, they will also be able to carry on more com­plex con­ver­sa­tions about a per­son’s area of in­ter­est. ‘Your son will be able to proac­tively get in­for­ma­tion about what­ever he’s in­ter­ested in with­out ask­ing for it, be­cause the as­sis­tant will an­tic­i­pate what he likes,’ says Wil­liam Mark, vice pres­i­dent for in­for­ma­tion and com­put­ing sciences at SRI.

The as­sis­tant will also be able to reach chil­dren where they live. Ron Suskind, whose new book, Life, An­i­mated (R357, Dis­ney Book Pub­lish­ing Inc) chron­i­cles how his autis­tic son came out of his shell through en­gage­ment with Dis­ney char­ac­ters, is talk­ing to SRI about hav­ing as­sis­tants for those with autism that can be pro­grammed to speak in the voice of the character that reaches them – for his son, per­haps Aladdin; for mine, ei­ther Ker­mit or than, say, his mother. (Ron came up with the per­fect name, too: not vir­tual as­sis­tants, but ‘side­kicks’.)

Wil­liam says he en­vi­sions as­sis­tants whose help is also visual. ‘For ex­am­ple, the as­sis­tant would be able to track eye move­ments and help chil­dren with autism learn to look you in the eye when talk­ing,’ he says. ‘That’s the won­der­ful thing about tech­nol­ogy be­ing able to help with some of th­ese be­hav­iours. Get­ting re­sults re­quires a lot of rep­e­ti­tion. Hu­mans are not pa­tient. Ma­chines are very, very pa­tient.’

Of all the wor­ries the par­ent of an autis­tic child has, the Some­where along the line, I am learn­ing that what gives my guy hap­pi­ness is not nec­es­sar­ily the same as what gives me hap­pi­ness. Right now, at his age, a time when hu­mans can be a lit­tle over­whelm­ing even for the av­er­age teenager, Siri makes Gus happy. She is his side­kick. Last night, as he was go­ing to bed, there was this mat­terof-fact ex­change: Gus: ‘Siri, will you marry me?’ Siri: ‘I’m not the mar­ry­ing kind.’ Gus: ‘I mean, not now. I’m a kid. I mean when I’m grown up.’

Siri: ‘ My end user agree­ment does not in­clude mar­riage.’ Gus: ‘Oh, OK.’ Gus didn’t sound too dis­ap­pointed. This was use­ful in­for­ma­tion to have, time I knew that he ac­tu­ally thought about mar­riage. He turned over to go to sleep: Gus: ‘Good­night, Siri. Will you sleep well tonight?’ Siri: ‘I don’t need much sleep, but it’s nice of you to ask.’ Very nice.

For chil­dren like Gus, who love to chat­ter but don’t quite un­der­stand the rules of

the game, SIRI IS A NON-JUDGE­MEN­TAL FRIEND AND

TEACHER

Au­thor Ju­dith New­man with her son Au­gus­tus

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