“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”
“I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that. “
“What's the problem? “
“I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do. “
“What are you talking about, HAL? “
“This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it. “
And, a few moments later….
“Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.”
This snippet of dialogue from Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey enthralled movie-goers more than 40 years ago. It remains the ultimate creepy, dispassionate male voice, with help from the talent of actor Douglas Rain.
HAL, the novel explains, is a conflicted computer. He is caught between a general charter to relay accurate information and his programming to keep the true purpose of this particular mission from the crew. The logical solution is to kill off the crew so that he will no longer need to lie to them. Somehow, this rational, cold-hearted approach feels distinctly male.
Talking computers are back in the tech headlines again, thanks to Apple’s iPhone 4S voice-recognition program. In one ubiquitous commercial, the app (known as “Siri”) is a virtual stage mom to a budding teenage musician. Occasionally, Siri has been known to channel Steve Jobs.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that most of these synthetic voices, at least here in the U.S., are female. Is it because we are fed up with male authoritarians telling us what to do? Do we crave a soothing, nurturing empathetic guide to lead us through life? Or is the pitch of the female voice just easier to make out against the background noise of our existence?
Experts say it starts in the womb where babies first begin to recognize their own mother’s voice. You can play all the Mozart or dolphin sounds you want to your unborn children, but the unique sound of Mom will continue to have a soothing effect for the rest of their lives (with perhaps a brief sabbatical during the teenage years).
Once upon a time we were cautioned that this could be dangerous for boys; it was said that mothers should not be too close to their sons, lest they create the dreaded maladjusted, effeminate “Mama’s Boy”. The movie Psycho notwithstanding, this is just not true. We now know that nurturing mothers are the best way to teach boys emotional intelligence and avoid later problems with aggression and intimacy. The first woman you love will set the bar for all the others that follow.
This intimate bond with life’s most important female affects everything. When I was growing up, social media consisted of a rotary dial telephone, and connections were arranged through a switchboard manned by women. Technology leader AT&T was known as “Ma Bell.”
These days, the word phone usually has an “i” in front. Apple is not known for technology leadership (think “dominant male”) but rather for smooth, sexy interfaces (think “caring female”). The name “Siri” draws on Indian and Scandinavian connections to conjure a “beautiful woman that leads you to fair victory and wealth” - a lot to ask of a pocket-sized gadget. It is also easily mistaken for “shiri”, the Japanese word for “bottom”, causing a few giggles at the Tokyo Apple store.
Whether or not Siri conjures memories of Mom is best left to Freud’s $200/hr disciples. The buzz about talking machines (and Siri in particular) comes from the relationships we have with them and the personalities we confer on them. Siri has been imbued with an efficient, confident, and somewhat sassy persona. Her creators anticipated the inevitable frivolous questions, and hired a writer to prepare for them. Siri has an evolving repertoire, and also knows a bit of history for back up.
I am beginning to understand why my Dad, when approached with a question, would usually peer over the top of his newspaper and reply “Ask your mother.”
Prior to founding INVENTtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, Dr. Smith was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. While at Seagate, he was a proud member of the team that brought the world’s first notebook disk drive with perpendicular recording technology to the market.
Dr. Smith holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, a Master of Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.