Author Archives: Abby Francis

About Abby Francis

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siri

The Woman Behind Siri

Defintion: Siri – a beautiful woman who leads you to victory

The introduction of Siri

On October 4th 2011, Apple unveiled the iPhone 4s and with this revelation came a feature which would shape the gist of smartphones. This feature was, of course, the introduction of an intelligent personal assistant, or Siri as she likes to be known. For the first time, here we had a smartphone which was not only smart, but gifted enough to organise our daily life through conversation.

For the past 3 years, Siri’s been a pocket accessory to millions of Apple owners worldwide. She’s starred alongside Samuel L. Jackson and Zoey Deschannel, provided weather forecasts for the masses and has been non-stop probed into what she’s wearing.

But behind the technological invention we all love to mock is a real woman and her name is Susan Bennett. Whilst Apple have never revealed SIRI’s identity, an audio forensic expert hired by CNN has confirmed that Bennetts voice and SIRI’s are a 100% match. So, how exactly did a middle aged woman from Atlanta go on to become a technological phenomenon?

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More of an Android fan? Then check out how geek culture is invading Google Now.

Siri, who are you?

Susan started her life out as a machine from quite a young age and has been at the top of her game since the 70’s. Her voice can be heard everywhere, from commercials, phone systems, GPS devices even airports. Fact is, she’s probably spoken to you numerous times, you just don’t know it. As her 36 year old son, or the Son of Siri if you like, playfully points out, there’s no escaping it “I’d call my bank while I was in college in Colorado, and it was my mom telling me I had $4.”

Music has always been a big part of her life, at university she sang in a jazz band and after graduating she toured as a backup singer with Burt Bacharach and Roy Orbison. Before being a voice over actress, she was a successful jingle singer enjoying minor fame as a variety of advert characters. Today she and her husband – a guitarist, composer and sound engineer – still gig, mostly at private events. Susan happened to fall into voice over work by chance. Walking into a studio in Atlanta, she found herself called up and replacing a no-show. Does she enjoy it? “You have a certain anonymity which can be very advantageous,” she said. “People don’t judge you by how you look … That’s been kind of freeing in a lot of ways.”

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How Siri was born

2005 is where it all began, a company called Nuance signed Susan for a project and for four hours a day she was holed up in a recording booth, in her pyjamas, reading nonsensical phrases. As she was never told where her voice would be used, daydreaming about her looming technological stardom to help pass the time was never an option. Not that it bothered her; “I was paid by the hour then moved on to the next gig.”

Creating voices for machines is an extremely long and complicated process. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t start by reading every letter in the alphabet. Phonetically rich sentences are chosen carefully then passed over to the voice over actressto read aloud. This process can take months and as Susan puts it “I get extremely bored … So I just take breaks. That’s one of the reasons why Siri might sometimes sound like she has a bit of an attitude.” Finally, after Susan struggled through and played her part, all phrases are analysed and catalogued into a big database for linguists, or “ubergeeks” as she affectionately calls them, to decipher.

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The Siri secret

The voice over industry tends to be extremely competitive and highly secretive. When massive brands like Apple are involved, everything from whose been hired to what’s been paid is kept strictly hush. Although Nuance has since confirmed that they are a “fundamental provider for Apple”, they coyly change the subject when asked about Siri. After the release of the iPhone 4s, a colleague emailed Susan saying ‘we’ve been playing around with this new Apple phone. Isn’t this you?’ Not an iPhone owner herself, she pulled up Apples website and listened to video clips announcing Siri, funnily enough, what she heard back was herself.

With the success of Siri, everybody was dying to put a face to a name. After all, we were speaking to her on a daily basis, letting her into our lives. Up until The Verge posted a video in 2013 that led some viewers to believe that a different voice over actress was Siri, Susan was happily enjoying anonymity.  Why didn’t she want people to know? “I really had to weigh the importance of it for me personally. I wasn’t sure that I wanted that notoriety, and I also wasn’t sure where I stood legally. And so, consequently, I was very conservative about it for a long time,” she states.  “And then this Verge video came out … And it seemed like everyone was clamouring to find out who the real voice behind Siri is, and so I thought, well, you know, what the heck? This is the time.”

A little to her dismay, since the arrival of iOS 7, Susan has passed the Siri torch as the voice assistant evolves. As our smartphone wants grow more necessitating, Siri needs to improve in order to keep her thrown, especially with tough competition coming from Google Now and Cortana. When Susan was booked in for what seemed a routine job back in 2005, she had no clue that she was about to become part of history, involved in a technological revolution. It’s a title she’s certainly proud of and one she won’t long shake. Technology can sometimes be a little cold and robotic, which is why we’re glad to know; behind every great machine is a greater woman.

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