Dec. 3, 2011 — -- Apple's Siri, the voice-activated "virtual assistant" in the new iPhone 4S, had no idea what it was saying. It turned out that while Siri can answer myriad spoken queries, it often stumbles if one asks for help getting an abortion.
Abortion-rights advocates objected, with some starting an online petition to make Apple do something. Soon, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) joined in.
"Although it isn't clear that Apple is intentionally trying to promote an anti-choice agenda, it is distressing that Siri can point you to Viagra but not the Pill, or help you find an escort but not an abortion clinic," said an ACLU blog post.
What's behind the rhetoric? Both groups said Siri -- which Apple has promised to improve -- is really not the issue.
"Do you know what a 'crisis pregnancy center' is -- a CPC?" said Ted Miller, communications director at NARAL Pro-Choice America. "They don't provide abortions. They're run by anti-choice groups, and they try to lure women in to talk them out of getting abortions.
"Our main intention, our goal, is to make sure people are getting accurate information. We want people to know about these organizations that would promote themselves dishonestly."
Jennifer Dalven, who heads the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, said, "The Siri issue is a symptom of a much larger problem. Why is it that we can have ads on TV for Viagra but talking about where a woman can get birth control or an abortion is taboo? This has real consequences. For example, it leads to sex education classes that just preach to kids that they should abstain until they get married but don't tell them about contraception."
Dalven said she did not doubt Apple's explanation that Siri was a work in progress: "We have no reason to believe that this was anything but a glitch."
Groups that have argued against legalized abortion have been quieter. Dave Andrusko of National Right to Life News said some people might wonder if the late Steve Jobs -- who was raised by adoptive parents -- "didn't program the 'glitch' into Siri which hit the stores soon after Jobs' death.
"Unfortunately, the answer[s] are likely elsewhere," he wrote.
The answer, according to engineers who know search technology works, is that Apple just got caught in the middle.
Siri's answers, they said, are limited by the sources it searches for information -- services such as Yelp and Wikipedia. One engineer, asking not to be quoted, said it might well be that anti-abortion groups use the term "abortion clinic" on their websites, but gynecologists who are willing to perform abortions in private would be reluctant to advertise it.
Danny Sullivan, who runs the website SearchEngineLand.com, found that Siri didn't know that acetaminophen is the chemical name for Tylenol. "Is Siri also against headaches?" he wrote. "I don't think so, but it [is] easy to pursue one line of questioning in various ways, such as everything about abortions, and come away with a skewed view that Siri is pro-life rather than just buggy in general."
Apple, for its part, is sticking to the comment it gave to ABC News and other organizations on Wednesday: "Our customers want to use Siri to find out all types of information, 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."