To Siri With Love: How the I-Phone Personal Assistant Reaches An Autistic Child

Source: New York Times

My 13-year-old son…Gus has autism, and Siri, Apple’s “intelligent personal assistant” on the iPhone, is currently his BFF…
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: “O.K.! Well, good night!”
Siri: “Ah, it’s 5:06 p.m.”
Gus: “Oh sorry, I mean, goodbye…”
It all began simply enough. I’d just read one of those Internet lists called “21 Things You Didn’t Know Your iPhone Could Do.” I could ask Siri, “What planes are above me right now?” Almost instantly there was a list of actual flights — numbers, altitudes, angles — above my head…“Why would anyone need to know what planes are flying above your head?” I muttered. Gus replied without looking up: “So you know who you’re waving at, Mommy.”
…It’s not that Gus doesn’t understand Siri’s not human. He does — intellectually. But like many autistic people…Gus feels that inanimate objects…are worthy of our consideration. I realized this when…I got him an iPod for his birthday. He listened to it only at home…(but) it always came with us on our visits to the Apple Store…(Why?) “So it can visit its friends,” he said.
…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. She is also wonderful for someone who doesn’t pick up on social cues.
Gus…snapped, “I don’t like that kind of music,” (when) Siri offered some suggestions…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…
Yesterday, I had the longest conversation with him that 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…but it was back and forth, and it followed a logical trajectory…(F)or most of my beautiful son’s 13 years of existence, that has not been the case.
According to the folks at SRI International, the…company where Siri began…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…SRI (could have) assistants for those with autism that can be programmed to speak in the voice of the character that reaches them…for mine, either Kermit or Lady Gaga…
Last night…there was this matter-of-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, O.K…”
“(T)he wonderful thing about technology being able to help with some of these behaviors,” says William Mark, (a) vice president…at SRI. “Getting results requires a lot of repetition. Humans are not patient. Machines are very, very patient.”

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