iPhone 4S's Siri Is Lost in Translation With Heavy Accents

PHOTO: Siri, the new virtual assistant, is displayed on the new Apple iPhone 4S in San Francisco.
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Siri, the state-of-the-art voice recongition app on the new iPhone 4S, is having some translation trouble with heavy accents, especially across the pond.

Hundreds of iPhone 4S users from Boston to Chelsea, England, to Edinburgh, Scotland, have taken to Internet message boards, blogs and YouTube to express frustrations when the app can't understand their native tongues.

Apple designed the app to be the user's instant assistant, ready to provide answers to any question or statement when prompted -- including "what's the meaning of life" and "open the pod bay doors" (a nod to the movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey"). Siri can schedule or move appointments, offer news and weather, look up facts, find restaurants, send text messages and browse the Internet to the user's heart's desire. That is, if the app can understand the request.

In a video posted by the Boston Globe, city native Bill Baker asked Siri, "Can I pahk my caaar in Havahd yahd?" The app responded with, "I'm not aware of any appointments about 'haven't yet.'"

In one YouTube video, which has garnered almost 35,000 hits in the past week, a Scotsman asks Siri, "Can you dance with me?" But the app interpreted that as, "can you dutch women."

Another Youtube video, a Scot asked Siri to "create a reminder," one of its basic response functions, but that prompted, "I do not understand 'create Alamain.'"

According to a statement on Apple's website, Siri can speak and understand the following languages: "English (United States, United Kingdom, Australia), French and German."

But the statetment goes on to say: "However, Siri is designed to recognize the specific accents and dialects of the supported countries listed above. Since every language has its own accents and dialects, the accuracy rate will be higher for native speakers."

Gizmodo.com, a gadget and technology website, conducted voice tests on Siri using some American, English and Australian accents. Gizmodo reporter Sam Briddle speculated that the further someone's voice is from a "neutral" accent or proper accent, such as a Southern accent, a Boston accent or a heavy Midwestern accent, the more Siri might get "confused." Same goes for our English-speaking counterparts across the Atlantic.

"Very prominently, Scottish users have found themseleves completely blocked out," Briddle said. "The Scottish accent is so dramatically different...it's a much thicker accent than a normal proper English accent and I think that just presented a problem for Siri."

The accent issue could be an "oversight" by Apple, Briddle continued, but Siri is the first of its kind to understand and respond to casual conversation.

"Natural language format is such a complicated thing," he said. "You're not just saying a pre-set command, which a computer has a pretty easy time understanding...with Siri, there are a hundred different ways to say the same thing."

When you say something to Siri, some of the message is processed locally on the iPhone and some of it is beamed to Apple's servers hundreds or thousands of miles from where the user is standing. Then a response is sent back to the phone -- you'll notice there's a delay in response time for some questions. If it were all processed on your phone, Briddle said, it would probably be slower.

We could cut Siri some slack and remind ourselves that it is still beta technology and Apple will probably iron out some of these wrinkles in its next launch. In fact, when you ask Siri "when will you go 'alpha'," the response is, "I can't say."

"Siri is the flagship of the iPhone 4S so I have no doubt they will continue to refine it," Briddle said. "And that means being able to understand people in Scotland."

Apple declined to directly comment on Siri's accent recognition issues, but referred to what was posted on their website: "Siri uses voice recognition algorithms to categorize your voice into one of the dialects or accents it understands. As more people use Siri and it's exposed to more variations of a language, its overall recognition of dialects and accents will continue to improve, and Siri will work even better."

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