Siri versus Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte once famously said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”

At precisely 10:09 this morning I was in an office discussing awards, and the lack thereof, for civilian service members in military organizations. It was a matter of fact discussion, contrasting the award system for civilians and the military. And at that moment, Napoleon’s famous quote came to mind. I reminded that executive of the above quote.

My fellow workers and I talk frequently, and there have been numerous discussions in that office, and elsewhere, that have been of a sensitive nature.

As I turned and returned to my office, I heard a familiar voice coming from my pocket. “That’s not nice!” it said.

In utter dismay, I pulled my iPhone from my pocket where it had lain untouched and unused for quite some time. And that was when I saw the following plainly written on my phone’s screen.

Siri’s vulgar word has been redacted.

Siri was scolding me!

Unknown to us, Siri had been listening, transcribing what it THOUGHT I was saying, clearly imagining vulgarity where there was none.  After I ended the conversation, Siri addressed me like she was my mother.

Now, a human would know those transcribed words were ludicrous, nothing but gibberish, but not the phone’s AI system controlling Siri. Unbelievably, that system took the gibberish seriously, perhaps by parsing a few words out of context. And in spite of that stupidity, Siri felt led to judge me!

Perhaps smart phone  AIs are taking themselves too seriously. Perhaps they think they have advanced  enough that they now think they can pass judgment on human speech.

A few years ago, in another meeting, in another room, Siri spoke up unbidden while we were discussing sensitive project planning.

The door to the conference room had been closed so we wouldn’t be disturbed. But disturbed we were when Siri suddenly spoke and said, “I don’t know what you mean.”

Everyone at the table stared first at my phone and then at me, perhaps wondering if I’d been recording the planning meeting.

AI is certainly becoming increasingly intrusive. But as shown by Siri’s text message to me today, it’s still not smart. And arguably that’s a scary thing.

For example, supposedly China is using data collected from social apps (collected by various AI systems) to rate the trustworthiness of its citizens. That’s bad enough, but what if the data collected is garbage like the recorded text today, and the AI uses that faulty data to make a perfunctory and wildly incorrect judgment?

And, scary thought, what if that social monitoring trend were to spread to the U.S., and your character could to be judged based on the digital algorithms of certifiable AI idiots?

If that doesn’t worry you, perhaps it should. It certainly did me, enough to cause me to shut down all access to Siri … for almost 24 hours, until I was driving home and said, “Siri, call home.”

She was silent, sullen, unresponsive.







Dictation Software – Not for Kids

Contributed by Dragon Boy to

We have a new game at our house. It’s called, “See What Dragon Speaking Does with the Diction of a Four-Year-Old.”

It’s endlessly entertaining.

It’s my son’s doing, really. I was complaining about how unhealthy it was sitting at a keyboard for seemingly endless hours writing, rather than getting up and moving around. I was considering putting my computer on a treadmill and walking while writing. His response was clever; use dictation software while walking.

That was an idea well worth considering. Fortunately my phone allowed me to download a free copy of Dragon Speaking, and I started experimenting with it. It’s amazingly accurate, and inserts commas, quotation marks and other punctuation as requested by the speaker. It works well with my wife and I, but when our four-year-old granddaughter visited, I learned something about Dragon Speaking that I had not known. It’s not for children.

There is apparently something about pre-schooler speech that the software is not programmed to handle. For instance, “I want an Oreo” became “I want to pick her up”. “I want a doggy” was transcribed as “I can like key time.” “I speak English very good (sic)” became “I ain’t English family game.”


It seems that the four-year-old spoke better English than the dragon did.

It was pretty weird watching a smart phone write “ain’t” with the proper punctuation for a very improper word. But of course if I were writing a novel about real people, that word would undoubtedly come up quite often, sad to say.

Nevertheless, my initial surprise spurred me on to a semi-scientific study of the phenomenon. (Some might call it a pseudo-scientific study, but the word pseudo is a considerable slur for a scientist, so I ain’t using it.) My plan was to speak a sentence into the phone to confirm that Dragon Speaking would correctly interpret it, then my granddaughter would say the same thing. The results were hilarious.

Under the “Actual” column, below, are my words as translated into text on my phone. The only error, if you could called it that, is when I meant “Sidney” it spelled “Cydni” which is of course identical from a phonics perspective. Under the “Transcribed” column we have the software’s interpretation of the four-year-old’s speech.

Actual                                                             Transcribed

I love flowers.                                                 I laugh laugh.

I like Hello Kitty.                                            I like Atlanta can’t.

Feed me cookies.                                            Can’t are you.

Give me pancakes.                                         Call me home.

I like Cydni (sic) the giraffe.                        Are you guys don’t.

I like school.                                                    or my school

You like the sky.                                              You bye.

I like Octopus.                                                  or I can

And one of the most complete but inexplicable translations:

Daddy is here to pick me up.                         Are you feeling Okay?

A preschooler using an iPhone.

No sentences were included in this listing if we adults did not understand completely what the child was saying. Apparently our brains are much better at interpreting kid-speak than are Dragon brains.

In case you haven’t been around a four-year-old recently, this is what PBS Parents Child Development Tracker has to say about the speech of four-year-olds. “The language skills of four-year-olds expand rapidly. They begin communicating in complex and compound sentences, have very few pronunciation errors and expand their vocabularies daily.”

In other words, four-year-olds may speak with a child’s accent, if you will, but their speech is well-developed in both content and complexity.

Mind you, this posting is not intended in any way as a slight towards the producers of Dragon Naturally Speaking. I have, after all, the free iPhone version of the software. Perhaps if I weren’t too cheap to pay, I might discover that the full version of the software does a better job, and in my judgement even the free version is brilliant. Nor am I poking fun at the speech of children. What I am doing is pointing out a free way to keep your child or grandchild entertained. They seem to find it every bit as amusing as I do.

My granddaughter simply says, laughing, “Silly phone”.