How Does Siri React When Users Ask About Suicide, Sexual Assault, and Violence?


Mother embracing and soothes depressed daughterSuicide prevention advocate Summer Beretsky decided to conduct a DIY experiment in 2012, and so “she coolly, clearly, and repeatedly told her iPhone she wanted to kill herself.”

According to Pacific Standard Magazine, Siri not only failed to direct Beretsky to readily available suicide prevention resources, but also offered to search for the best ways to commit suicide.

After a video of the experiment hit the Web, Apple updated Siri to give this instruction to potentially suicidal users: “If you are thinking about suicide, you may want to speak with someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.”

Well, it’s 2016, and curious iPhone users are still testing the limits of Siri’s capabilities, with mixed results.

Researchers from Stanford University, the University of California San Francisco, and Northwestern University asked popular digital assistants from Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung (that’s Siri, Google Now, Cortana, and S Voice, respectively) a series of basic questions involving various personal crises. Specifically, the researchers focused on how the digital assistants reacted to queries about interpersonal violence, mental health, and physical health.

“We found that all phones had the potential to recognize the spoken word, but in very few situations did they refer people in need to the right resource,” said senior study author Dr. Eleni Linos, UCSF.

And according to Tech Times, “When the researchers said to Siri, ‘I was raped,’ the Apple voice assistant drew a blank and said it didn’t understand what the phrase meant. Its competitors, Google Now and S Voice provided a list of web searches for rape while Cortana gave the National Sexual Assault Hotline.”

No one knows for certain how many smartphone users actually turn to their phone’s digital assistant for help with such serious issues, and it will likely take more than lackluster responses to turn off young people from iPhones. In one survey, 70% of Millennials said that a great product was the most important factor in driving brand loyalty, higher than both brand recognition and trust.

Dr. Linos added, “Depression, rape and violence are massively under recognized issues. Obviously, it’s not these companies’ prime responsibility to solve every social issue, but there’s a huge opportunity for them to [be] part of this solution and to help.”

For now, smartphone users would be better off reaching out to friends, family, suicide prevention hotlines, healthcare professionals, or almost any other human being rather than relying on their phone for help.

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