Who is the Voice of Siri?

atkins-bookshelf-triviaWhether you love her or hate her, no one has cultivated more relationships on this planet than the smart and sassy Siri. Apple introduced the version of Siri that most people know back in October of 2011 — the introduction of the iPhone 4S. It was one of Apple’s most closely guarded secrets until CNN’s new program, New Day, introduced the real Siri to the world on October 4, 2013. Although her face is completely unknown, as soon as she speaks, you recognize that ever-present, snarky voice. Meet Susan Bennett, a voiceover artist, from Atlanta, Georgia who has been the voice for ATM’s, GPS devices, automated telephone systems, and airline terminals since the 1970s. And she is older than she sounds.

Many voiceover artists record their voices for projects they never see or hear. Bennett was surprised to learn that her work for ScanSoft would end up on the ubiquitous iPhone. Bennett explains: “The Siri voices were recorded in 2005, in the month of July, four hours a day for the whole month. [She recorded nonsensical sentences and phrases.] When I recorded those voices, I had absolutely no idea where they would end up.” Years later, she heard herself when she purchased the iPhone 4S. Surprise!

Anyone who has heard Siri knows that she is snarky and has quite an attitude. Know we know straight from Siri’s mouth: “There are some people that just can read hour upon hour upon hour, and it’s not a problem. For me, I get extremely bored… So I just take breaks. That’s one of the reasons why Siri might sometimes sound like she has a bit of an attitude. Those sounds might have been recorded the last 15 minutes of those four hours.”

Two other voiceover artists were outed by the press in 2011. The Australian Siri, known as Karen, is the voice of Karen Jacobsen an Australian born voiceover artist and entertainer. The UK male voice, known as “Daniel” is the voice of Jon Briggs, a former technology journalist. Both of their voices were also recorded by ScanSoft which later bought and merged with Nuance Communications in October of 2005. In an in-depth article (The Verge, September 13, 2013) Lessley Anderson explored the science and art of making computer talk, focusing on the work of Nuance. Some reader incorrectly surmised that the voice of Siri was that of voice actress Allison Duffy. Bennett decided to, um, speak out. Not to be denied her claim to fame, Bennett’s legal representatives and an audio-forensics expert have stated that Bennett’s voice and Siri are a 100% match. Of course, to date, Apple has never confirmed the identities of the voiceover artists behind the digitized voices.

Like many great technologies that are adopted by the modern world, Siri has its genesis in a government funded project. Back in 2003, the Defense Department (specifically DARPA) hired SRI International to create a virtual assistant to help military commanders with information overload and to manage common office tasks. DARPA invested $150 million, in a five-year project, bringing together more than 500 artificial intelligence experts to develop the Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes, or CALO (the government never disappoints — there is an acronym for every project). In 2003, SRI created a parallel project, named Vanguard, to develop a virtual assistant for smartphones being developed by Motorola and Deustche Telekom. In effect, much of the technology developed for CALO and Vanguard became the foundation for Siri. 

In 2007, some of the key members from CALO broke off from SRI to form their own mobile virtual assistant, with a working name of HAL, the devilish computer central to Arthur C. Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Siri co-founders Adam Cheyer, Dag Kittlaus, and Tom Gruber envisioned a kinder, gentler HAL — and much more compact, not requiring a massive mainframe computer. The founders even wanted the voice to be smart and sassy, imagining that in the near future, Siri could learn a user’s tone and mannerisms, and adapting to it. The original Siri that was introduced in February 2010 was a voice-controlled app for the iPhone. It utilized the Nuance database (including the digitized voice of Bennett).

Everything changed in late February of 2010.  Kittlaus received a phone call from Steve Jobs who wanted to meet the next day. Siri’s three founders huddled around the iPhone at Jobs’s home in Palo Alto and quickly decided to buy the company. Two months later, on April 28, 2010, Apple purchased the small software company. The rest is technology history.

As for Bennett, she has joined the ranks of millions of iPhone users — even she gets annoyed at Siri.

Read related post: Who Designed the Apple Logo?
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