updated 04:00 am EST, Thu December 1, 2011
Manufactured controversy feeds news frenzy
In another example of the sort of manufactured controversy involving Apple recently touched on in a MacNN editorial, a number of left-leaning political sites are claiming that Siri, the voice technology and web amalgamation service offered on the iPhone 4S, has a "pro-life bias" due to its often being unable to correctly identify phrases such as "where is the nearest abortion clinic" and "where can I get birth control." Apple has now publicly debunked the charges.
There are a number of problems with the contention that Siri is weighted against abortion clinics or, as Think Progress claimed, "women's health needs" generally, TUAW reports. In the specific example of "abortion clinics," there are very few businesses in the United States that still use the word "abortion" or "birth control" in their business name. Asking for a "women's health" center produces generic health center results as well as businesses that specifically use the term.
Another factor is that Siri relies on an outside sources -- Yelp.com in the case of businesses -- for its information. If Yelp or Apple itself don't have extensive tagging on a particular category of retail business, the listings for it are poor.
It could be argued, however, that in avoiding using Google for its automatic lookup of businesses not covered by Yelp, Apple is currently short-changing some users who are looking in certain categories. However, Siri is still in beta and doesn't "know" every possible business type yet, particularly when in the case of women's health services the actual business names are often forced to use euphemisms in their titles.
Finally, asking for a specific business name of an abortion -- or adoption -- service, or a Planned Parenthood office appears to provide accurate information (albeit in some areas not as complete as what a Google search would provide), something it would not do if Siri genuinely had a "pro-life bias." Apple as a corporation has generally been seen to be more left-of-center politically on the occasions where such issues have come up.
It appears that the left-leaning sites are simply over-reacting to flawed logic, as reporter Chris Rawson points out. Using the same line of thinking, Siri is also "anti-foreigner" since it (currently) ignores requests for non-US places or businesses.
Since the initial claims appeared, The New York Times has reportedly confirmed with an Apple spokesperson that such business omissions as "abortion clinics" were part of the ongoing learning process, and one of the reasons why Siri is referred to as being in beta. The Apple rep added that improvements in Siri could be expected "in the coming weeks." [via TUAW]