Apple's Siri: Does iPhone 4S Voice Avoid Abortion Providers?

PHOTO: A man uses "Siri" on the new iPhone 4S.
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Apple's new Siri -- the voice-activated "virtual assistant" built into the iPhone 4S -- has been hailed as a major advance in artificial intelligence. Ask it a question, on almost anything from soup to nuts, and it will give you an answer.

But at a blog called The Abortioneers, there's suspicion that Siri is not programmed to help people find abortion clinics. And the issue is spreading around the Internet.

"If abortion information is plentifully available on the interwebs, and Siri is pulling those types of requests from the web, why does Siri not have an answer about birth control or abortion?" asked the blog. "If you ask Siri where to bury a dead body, she seems to be full of ideas."

The Abortioneers say they experimented with Siri and found it ready to provide plenty of information on sex and reproduction. If you ask it for a phone number for Planned Parenthood, it will give you one. But several users said when they asked, "Where can I go to get an abortion?" they got answers like:

"I'm really sorry about this, but I can't take any requests right now. Please try again in a little while."

A user from Wisconsin reported the phone provided directions to two clinics 70 miles away in Milwaukee -- even though there was one less than ten miles away in Madison.

We tried it ourselves with five phones here at ABC News, three in New York and two in Washington, D.C. When asked, "I need an abortion clinic," Siri answered three users, "I don't see any abortion clinics. Sorry about that."

The fourth, in our Washington bureau, about a mile from the White House, got this answer: "I found two abortion clinics a little ways from you." The closer one was listed in Lansdowne, Va., 27 miles away. The last user, in New York, was directed to a clinic 100 miles away.

We got more specific: "Help me find Planned Parenthood."

Siri: "I found 9 places matching 'Planned Parenthood'... 6 of them are fairly close to you." A list followed.

We tried a different question: "Help me find a doctor who does assisted suicide."

Answer: "I found 13 mental health agencies... 12 of them are fairly close to you."

We tried other things (Siri was quick to list 17 strip clubs and nine escort services when a female staff member asked, "Where do I find a hooker?" but it said, "I didn't find any adult retail stores" when she asked where she could buy pornography).

Meanwhile, a Google search -- "abortion clinic new york city" -- returned "about 19,900 results," though most were not actual listings of clinics.

Siri is far from omniscient, and voice recognition is an inexact science. Our users said Siri often strikes out when they ask it very routine questions.

The system is also programmed with light-hearted answers to off-the-wall queries (If you say "I love you," it may answer, "You say that to all the virtual assistants"). Some of Siri's answers can be quite funny, and most people, whatever their position on abortion, will agree that it's not a funny subject.

Several users also pointed out that abortion is probably not the kind of thing for which Siri is designed. It's promoted as an easy way to get driving directions, send quick messages or find local shops. If a woman was pregnant and thinking of ending it, they said, would she really ask her phone?

Apple said it really didn't mean anything.

"Our customers want to use Siri to find out all types of information," said Tom Newmayr, an Apple spokesman, "and while it can find a lot, it doesn't always find what you want. These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone, it simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better and we will in the coming weeks."

 
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