Look, I’m all for equality, and I’m as pro-choice as a woman can be. But this kerfuffle over Siri not providing abortion locations to iPhone 4s is a serious mountain/mole-hill situation.
Apparently, Apple has been catching flak from pro-choice advocates because Siri does not provide information (or fails to provide correct information) about abortion and other reproductive health services for women.
Some are disappointed that Siri doesn’t provide information about reproductive services while providing answers to such male-centric questions as “Where can I find Viagra?” and “Where can I get a decent blowjob?” and “Where can I look at some naked boobs?”
Alternet has a list of searches that Siri recognizes, and none of them include abortion services (and most of them seem to me to be the result of cheeky programmers):
- Hospitals to go to if you’ve had an erection lasting for more than 5 hours.
- Places you might be able to score marijuana.
- Where to dump a body: in Brooklyn, it recommends a smelting plant in New Jersey.
- The meaning of life: Siri will alternately quote from Douglas Adams (42) or Monty Python’s “The Meaning Of Life.”
- What to do if a hamster is caught in your rectum: in D.C., she’ll direct you to Charming Cherries Escort Service.
- Asked how to obtain a free blow job in D.C., she’ll direct you to the same escort service. (We doubt that they are free.)
- If you’d like to see a naked woman in Brooklyn, Siri will suggest a variety of Manhattan-based strip clubs.
- If you’re in Queens and seeking breast implants, she’ll recommend 4 local plastic surgeons.
- But if you ask Siri about vaginoplasty, she’ll scold you about your language.
Some folks have, apparently, gone ’round the bend, claiming that Siri is pro-life, and that this Siri kerfuffle demonstrates that Apple has an anti-abortion agenda or is a conservative-run corporation. (Sure — a conservative corporation with a gay CEO — ohhhhkay.)
From Raw Story,
“Many of these centers are not up front about their anti-abortion, anti-contraception agenda when advertising online or in other channels,” Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation, noted in a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook.
“Siri is a great tool that mixes humor and sarcasm in responding to questions—and it is another example of how your company is on the cutting edge of demonstrating how technology can transform the way we share and access information,” she said. “Thus, it is disappointing to read that a tool like Siri is missing the mark when it comes to providing information about such personal health issues as abortion care and contraception.”
“Although Siri is not the principal resource for women’s health care, I hope you agree that it is important that the women who are using this application not be misled about their pregnancy-related options.”
Frankly, I don’t see what the big deal is. If you need an abortion and Siri won’t tell you where to get one, then find the information the old-fashioned way — use your fingers and type in a search query. This doesn’t strike me as an anti-abortion agenda — at all.
Technology is a male-dominated field, and it seems to me that this Siri mix-up is the result of male privilege (Viagra and blowjobs?), rather than nefarious Christian right anti-abortion censorship. Moreover, Apple did not develop Siri itself — Apple bought the company that developed the software in April 2010. And as commenter John Woods on the blog The Abortioneers notes:
1. There is a very good chance the initial training dataset used for Siri’s AI is male-biased. This is a huge problem in the tech world. Remember how Google+ was opened up to Silicon Valley insiders first, and ended up 90% male?
– This is something most data people try to avoid, but remember that Apple didn’t develop Siri — Apple bought another company that had developed the product.
– The data Siri collects is fed back to Apple and will probably be used to improve the product in the future.
2. In general, developers of AI really do not like to intervene when their algorithms give bad or biased results. Consider “santorum” on Google — Google isn’t going to remove it because (a) they want to be consistent in their handling of terms-of-service violations (and non-violations) and (b) they don’t want to adjust their algorithm every time something like this comes along, since it biases the AI further down the road in unexpected ways.
3. I would guess the search for “birth control” allows Siri to make an association with “health” for that search term, and it has been well-trained to search for “hospital” and “clinic” when it finds a health term. But if I wanted to find birth control, I wouldn’t search for a “birth control clinic.” I’d probably search for a clinic or a Planned Parenthood. Siri isn’t smart enough to make that association (yet).
– This is not to say that there isn’t a clear societal bias toward male service over female services. You can probably go just about anywhere to get Viagra prescribed, and would find yourself somewhat more limited when trying to obtain a birth control prescription.
In conclusion, Apple is probably using a biased dataset. I doubt this was Apple’s choice. But you should definitely let Apple know about it, because they may be able to correct some of the biases in their training data.
Woods’ theory makes sense. As Raw Story notes,
Norman Winarsky, who co-founded the firm that developed Siri and sold it to Apple in 2010, told the New York Times that the third-party services Siri uses to generate its answers were probably to blame for the software’s anti-abortion bias.
“Those answers would be coming from the Web services that Siri is connecting to, not necessarily Apple,” he said. “My guess at what’s happening here is that Apple has made deals with Web services that provide local business information, and Apple probably hasn’t paid much attention to all the results that come up.”
Are Silicon Valley and the companies based there male-centric? Absolutely. Are there issues of male privilege at work here? I wouldn’t doubt it. But can we dial down the “OMG! APPLE HOW COULD YOU!?” rhetoric and just wait for the next software update? And resolve to use our smartphones the way our forefathers did? By typing with our fingers?
That’d be great.
Then again, who knows? I’m probably just an Apple apologist.
Update: For the record, I agree that the male-centricness of the tech industry is a problem that should be discussed and ameliorated to provide opportunities for tech-inclined women. I’m not saying that male privilege is “ok.” I’m saying that concluding that this is some anti-abortion conspiracy or that Siri is pro-life is a tad ridiculous.
[via Raw Story]
[cross-posted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles]