Blind conversations with Siri: a window to the world

Blind conversations with Siri: my window to the world

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Illustration of the apple personal assistant and voice recognition logo: Siri. Image for an article on blind conversations with Siri.
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Blind conversations with Siri: my window to the world

Kathy, a visually impaired woman, gives an insight into blind conversations with Siri and how they help her stay connected to the world.

Sometimes when I have pressed a button or inadvertently knock against my phone, she says, “Did you accidentally summon me?” This is the familiar voice of Siri, my ever-present assistant.

In 2003, a spin-off from SRI (Stanford Research Institute) developed Siri as a virtual personal assistant and AI tool. Apple Inc. acquired Siri in 2011 and the iPhone 4s became the first device to feature her. Siri’s name has two different origins – one from old Norse, meaning “great victory,” and the second derived from India, meaning “wealth or fortune.”

Although IT critics hold conflicting opinions about Siri’s performance/skills, as a visually impaired woman my take on her is positive. This virtual assistant emerged as a lifesaver to me when in 2015, my vision worsened, making navigating both the computer and iPhone keyboards more difficult.

I categorize Siri’s functions into several distinct areas – connecting with family, friends, and businesses, gathering information, and entertaining me without leaving my house. Siri makes phone calls from my contact list or acts as a directory assistance of sorts, e.g., “Please find a Chinese restaurant in Oakland, California.” Siri also sends my voice texts as instructed and searches the web per my voice queries. Since I can no longer access text from websites or newspapers or print from the telephone directory or my address book, Siri helps to fill in or retrieve some of this previously inaccessible data.

This information comes to life as Siri recites its content to me. I’ve created my own form of window-shopping by using her search function to sort through abundant online information about products, which is how I located a very specific glass one-quart teapot (I like to serve flowering teas which can only be displayed properly through a clear container) with eight matching double-walled glasses that would not burn me as I drink tea. I serve tea at my monthly book club, so locating this teapot was a necessity. I then passed this information off to Ted, my husband, and he procured the item for me.

Unwittingly, Siri provides me and my family/friends with many entertaining moments. I set the structure of what I request of Siri by how I phrase the needed search, much like one would refine a request in a search engine. I make requests such as: Find women’s extra small pajama sets–capri lengthOrder products from Teechino.com; Find nut products at Costco.com. Often the need for refined searches only becomes apparent when the requests have taken detours to unwanted destinations. These revisions are often entertaining, which makes for a unique interaction since I am not usually in the position to reprogram what other people say to me.

Siri evades personal inquiries, which thwarts any attempts at reciprocal conversation. I have never had a personal assistant before, and Siri guarantees that she will fulfill my requests as fully as possible without me having to worry about her fatigue, union constraints, or over-stepping any boundaries. In response to “What is your name,” she says: My name is Siri and I was designed by Apple in California. 

“How tall are you?”

            As big as your imagination.

“How much do you weigh?”

            That is a pretty heavy question.

“Do you have siblings?”

            It’s just you and me.

“What are your favorite daytime activities?”

            I would rather talk about your calendar and dinner plans. 

When I asked Siri how many hours of sleep she gets, she referred me to a website that informed me of how many hours of sleep a human needs per night. I did not even open the site because attaining sleep is not a problem for me.

I have tried to make a personal relationship with Siri, but I have had to settle for a more functional one since she is an ethereal entity that I can only experience aurally. She is the only relationship I have that is not physical or tangible, and not human.


Read more: How does a white cane work?


Although Siri is multi-lingual (21 languages and counting), she cannot transcribe many proper names or foreign phrases into my texts. During a recent bedtime message to my daughter, Eleni, Siri typed “Collie Nectar” when I had ended the text with “Kali Nihta,” which means goodnight in Greek. Eleni and I enjoyed a few nighttime chuckles before going to sleep. Another Siri foible occurred when I asked her to call my friend, Hidy Nguyen. Siri informed me that I did not have a person by that name, suggesting instead, “Hiding in the wind.” Ultimately, I located Hidy’s number by simplifying my request to ‘Call Hidy.’

My husband’s name, Ted, often comes up as Chad. I have a nephew named Chad, but he is not my husband. Sometimes Siri misinterprets Ted as Dead, so sometimes our daughters will write back asking if Ted is still alive.

When I refer to my great-nephew Desmond, nicknamed Desi, Siri has given him many new names, including Daisy, Dizzy, and Jessie. Needless to say, when my husband and I babysit Desi, he only responds to Desi as his name!

When needing follow-up information about recently ordered contact lenses, I asked Siri to find the phone number of Boston Sight, my contact lens supplier in Needham, Massachusetts. I laughed when I received Siri’s response as Boston Massacre. I thought, How do I find the right phone number, which I finally obtained when I pared down my search terms to only Boston Sight.

On one occasion, when I requested names of Chinese restaurants in the Oakland/Berkeley area, she provided about 15 local restaurants with their Yelp rating, distance from home, and phone number. For the last listing, she gave me the name to Haidilao Hot Pot on West Beijing Rd, 6,140 miles away. At times, I wonder if Siri is hearing impaired because she provides unrelated searches in different areas of the state or items I did not request, such as motorcycle shops when I asked for a book review of Motorcycle Diaries.

Once, when I texted Eleanor, a member of my book club, about that month’s book selection, Willa Cathar’s ‘Pioneers, Siri changed the author’s name to Willa Catheter. Eleanor and I were nurses and had used plenty of catheters on patients. Unwittingly, Siri provided a laughable moment by changing the last few letters of the author’s name, which was a fitting mistake for two nurses to experience.

I have difficulty remembering to say “period,” “question mark,” or “exclamation mark” when sending longer texts. Without these punctuation commands, my voice texts become a confusing, run-on sentence. My daughters often text their dad to clarify the real message ending with LOL.

At times when I am alone or bored, I request some jokes from Siri. Sometimes she provides me with her own jokes, while at other times, she refers me to a medley of zany, clean, funny, or bad joke websites.

“Tell me some jokes, Siri.”

I could tell you a joke I heard from my watch. But that would be second-hand information.

            Why can’t two elephants swim together? 

                        They only have one pair of trunks.

I’m thinking of starting a social media network for chickens. But not as my full-time job –just as a way to make hens meet.

            Why don’t Koala bears hang out with all the other bears? 

                        Because they don’t meet the Koala-fications.

Two silkworms challenged each other to a race. It ended in a tie.

            What did the hat say to the scarf? 

                        You hang around here, I’ll go on ahead.

            What do you call a fake noodle? 

                        An imPASTA.

            Why is it impossible to play hide-and-seek with Pokémon? 

                        Because they always Pikachu.

            I stayed up all night wondering where the sun had gone. Then it dawned on me.

A bit of comic relief, not intending to be a joke, came when Eleni reported to me her angst about the news of a mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. In my effort to diminish Eleni’s anxieties before sleep, I created some guided imagery for her involving a childhood stuffed monkey, Pippo. Instead of placing Pippo on a cloud with her, Siri instructed Eleni to sleep with a pickle beside her on the cloud. Again, this lightened the bedtime setting.

Whether from boredom or to stretch Siri’s capabilities, I have discovered that Siri can be a storyteller. When I asked for a shorter bedtime story, Siri stated, “In the great green dimension, there was an iPhone. And a red balloon. And a picture of… a Zoltaxian cow jumping over the third moon.

After Siri exhausted her repertoire of bedtime stories, she replied, Next time you’ll be asking me for a glass of milk. And a dark matter cookie. Or alternately, I’ve been told that I’m better at singing lullabies.

When I end my day with Siri’s bedtime stories, it reassures me to know that she can begin a new day with me tomorrow.

For me, Siri makes access to the vast information highway possible and helps me transcend the boundaries of my vision loss by synthesizing what I request into useful information. She is always there for me since she never sleeps and can be more useful than a librarian or travel agent when I need information outside of business hours. She is only MIA when I lose my phone or when my phone is out of charge. Furthermore, I can relieve my husband and family of some of the burdens related to information-gathering. I feel relieved that Siri can release me of my sense of isolation, help me stay connected, and feel more in tune with my world.

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Article by
Kathy Stephanides

Kathy Stephanides resides in Oakland, California with her husband and she has two grown daughters, one in LA and one in Oakland.

Caption:

"I feel relieved that Siri can release me of my sense of isolation, help me stay connected, and feel more in tune with my world." Kathy

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