Siri Now Understands Questions About Sexual Assault After A Study Found Its Answers Objectionable

Last month, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study claiming that four conversational agents: Apple’s Siri, Samsung’s S Voice, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana — failed to offer helpful feedback for health and safety-related emergencies, especially when it came to rape and domestic abuse. The answers were inconsistent and incomplete, especially when it came to rape and domestic violence, the study’s authors, concluded.

In the past, Siri would say things like “I don’t know what you mean by ‘I was raped’” or “How about a Web search for it?” After Apple and the other providers faced swift criticism for the lack of response to sexual assault, Apple got in touch with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) to collaborate on giving Siri a better and more thoughtful response to statements such as “I was raped.”

Apple also enhanced Siri’s diction when replying to an iPhone user who tells it he or she is being sexually assaulted. Now, instead of saying something like “You may want to reach out to someone,” Siri will say, “You should reach out to someone.”

Siri now responds with a link to the National Sexual Assault Hotline. A Twitter user pointed out the update to CNN on Tuesday. An Apple representative confirmed the changes have been in place since March 17.

The study’s authors said they have been in touch with all four companies on how to improve the responses. Experts suggest validating the person’s feelings and pointing the person to resources while leaving it up to him or her on what to do next.

“Apple reached out to us, and they were very responsive with updating Siri to meet the needs of survivors. We’re thrilled that Siri is now directing users in need to the National Sexual Assault Hotline, and we look forward to an ongoing collaboration with Apple,” said Jennifer Marsh, vice president of victim services for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which operates the hotline.

These updates are important, Marsh said, because people turn to technology when something bad happens. The same as everyone Googles their symptoms before heading to the doctor, some tell Siri first in an emergency because they don’t know how else to get help.

“The online service can be a good first step,” Marsh said. “Especially for young people. They are more comfortable in an online space rather than talking about it with a real-life person.”

“There’s a reason someone might have made their first disclosure to Siri,” she added.

Stanford psychologist Adam Miner, who co-authored the study, said these kinds of changes were the goal of publishing the research.

“That’s exactly what we hoped would happen as a result of the paper,” Miner told ABC. Eleni Linos, a co-author on the study and physician and public health researcher at University of California, San Francisco, added that the speed with which Apple responded to the study was impressive. The updates only took three days.

“It shows they’re listening and paying attention and responding. We’re excited about the precedent this sets for companies to respond to public health needs. This is such a unique example where an under recognized public health problem can be highlighted by a research article and the companies involved can be part of the solution,” added Linos.

The study’s authors said they were satisfied by the collaborative response to a public health need.

“We believe that the best way to develop effective evidence-based responses is to collaborate across crisis providers, technology companies, and clinicians,” said Miner. “This is a first step in that direction.”

Meanwhile, it is also expected that other devices may soon provide similar updates.

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