Real-life voice of Siri entertains crowd at MVCC

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UTICA — The stage of the Shafer Theater, on the campus of Mohawk Valley Community College was where Susan Bennett, the original voice of Siri, the Apple Inc. virtual assistant, spoke to about 150 spectators on Thursday, May 2.

Bennett, who told the audience she lived in Clinton as a young girl and attended Clinton Central High School, said she felt like she was back home and also felt like she knew the audience already.

“How many people here have an iPhone?” Bennett asked. “I thought I recognized you.”

Bennett said while the audience might not know her personally she wondered if they might recognize this, and spoke as if she was Siri asking some of the more popular questions the audience would know from using the app over the years.

“Shall I search the web?” said Bennett, in her Siri voice. “In a quarter of a mile make a left turn. Yes, of course, I like you.”

Bennett continued to say the original voice of Siri was quite a character, she was “feisty” but also funny, and sometimes even insulting and again in her Siri voice gave the crowd some very specific examples.

“Has anyone here ever been “dissed” by Siri?” she asked.

She said one time she even asked Siri ‘Hi, Siri. What are you doing?’ To which Siri replied, “I’m talking to you,” drawing a raucous laugh from the audience.

So we know who Siri is and what she does, but where did she come from, Bennett asked.

She said that much to many peoples surprise Apple did not create Siri. They bought the app and developed it, but the actual creators were three engineers (from the Stanford Research Institute) Adam Cheyer, Tom Gruber and Dag Kittlaus from Norway. Kittlaus is credited with giving the app its name.

However, she said she heard once that Siri is just an acronym for “Speech Interpretation Recognition Interface.”

But for all Bennett’s fame and somewhat fortune, more on that later, she said when Apple first introduced Siri in its OS-4 cell phones in 2011, it wasn’t until a friend of hers called her and said, ‘Hey, I’m fooling around with this new Siri app and...well, isn’t this you?’ And I was like ‘what?’

In a strange twist of fate, since he believed in the project so much, and fought so hard to acquire it, Bennett said Siri was launched one day before Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Inc. passed away. Bennett had been a voice actor for years, she explained.

And in 2005 she took a month long job from a company called ScanSoft, who unbeknownst to her at the time, was involved in a project for Apple Inc, where she and some others voiced scripts that eventually led to the voice of Siri, her voice.

“Digital voices do come from real human beings...so far,” Bennett said. “Voice actors like myself were asked to read scripts that were created just for sound. These are called IVR, or “Interactive Voice Recognition” scripts. These scripts are made up of thousands phrases and sentences that on their own are complete gibberish, but were created to get all of the sounds of the language recorded. After the recordings were done, technicians and computers went into them and extracted sounds, and reformed these sounds into new phrases and sentences, and these are what ended up on our devices.”

She continued to explain this process is called “concatenation” which defined means, “the action of linking things together.”

Interestingly enough Bennett said that because the sentences and phrases were created for this process, and not at all for meaning or content, they were pretty wacky, very nonsensical, and they were very challenging to read.

She shared some of the sentences.

“Say shist ishu today,” she said. “Fossa ask fazza ast fuzzy, say shaada again, say shooda, again, say shiffty again.”

Once Bennett found out she was the voice of the new app she said she had no idea how to approach the situation. She said the British have a wonderful term for her level of surprise called “gobsmacked.”

She admits she didn’t quite know how to handle the situation for nearly two years. She couldn’t get any information out of Apple Inc. and they certainly were not confirming it was her voice. The whole situation caused her a lot of anxiety and concern. And it wasn’t just because she never got a check from Apple, but also she was worried about being type-cast, and frankly she liked her anonymity as a voice actor. But, with the encouragement of her family, she outed herself in a CNN interview and immediately felt like a boulder had been lifted. And what she got out it was a much more lucrative and rewarding career. She got an agent out of Los Angeles and the flood gates opened. She said she did hundreds of interviews, she did an appearance on a Mariah Carey Christmas Special, a To Tell the Truth game show, the Queen Latifah Show, she read the top 10 list on the David Letterman Show, and many Siri presentations just like this one.

Since her voice was retired from the app with the launching of OS-7 in January of 2018, Bennett said some very specific changes have been made.

“Well, she got younger,” Bennett said. “ Also the phrases she uses became less informal, and text language like “LOL” were included. In short, Siri became a millennial.”

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