No App For That? Siri's Scottish Problem

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In Scotland, Apple's latest iPhone update isn't the smashing success it has been elsewhere. That's because Siri, the voice-controlled personal assistant, can't understand a word they're saying. NPR's Guy Raz puts Siri to the test with brogue-carrier Neil McIntosh.

SIRI: My name is Siri. I'm here to help.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

She may already be the most famous personal assistant in the country, maybe the world. The interactive aid known as Siri debuted with the Apple iPhone 4S in October, and she's been talking her owners through their various problems and requests ever since, that is, when she can understand them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Can I park my car in Harvard Yard?

RAZ: There are videos showing up all over the Internet of iPhone owners with thick accents...

SIRI: I'm not aware of any appointments about haven't yet.

RAZ: ...being misunderstood by Siri. That was a Boston Globe employee with that distinctive accent. Now, here's Japanese.

SIRI: Which email address? For work or home?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Work.

SIRI: I don't know what you mean by wok.

RAZ: Some accents work better than others, Indian, for example, but the one that seems to give Siri fits - and it's all over the Internet - is Scottish.

NEIL MCINTOSH: Ask Siri to do things just by talking the way you talk.

RAZ: We asked a local Scotsman to come in and put Siri through her paces. He's reading from Apple's instructions about how to use Siri, and we figured since we're talking about an Apple product, we'd ask a Scotsman named McIntosh, Neil McIntosh.

MCINTOSH: Say something like, remind me to call the vet, any good burger joints around here? Siri does what you say, finds the information you need, then answers you.

RAZ: So we asked Neil to start with one of those recommended questions.

MCINTOSH: Any good burger joints around here?

SIRI: I found 17 burger restaurants.

RAZ: OK. So she got one. Actually, she got about half of our questions. But the other half?

MCINTOSH: How do you cook a haggis?

SIRI: I don't understand. How do you could I guess?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCINTOSH: How do you could I guess.

RAZ: So that is Siri versus a Scotsman Neil McIntosh. How do you think Siri did?

MCINTOSH: Well, I think since I've been in the States for 14 years, that my accent's a lot cower than it used to be. Siri should probably have done a bit better.

RAZ: She should have done a bit better. Now, the phone that you're holding, there's a setting. It says United States. They do have a United Kingdom setting on that phone. Can we pull that United Kingdom setting up?

MCINTOSH: Absolutely. Let's go for it. Remind me to call the vet.

COMPUTER VOICE: I don't know what you mean by, I need powders.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCINTOSH: How do you cook a haggis?

VOICE: Sorry. I don't understand. How do (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: It actually seemed to make it worse, Neil.

MCINTOSH: Maybe that's my American accent coming through.

RAZ: Now, here's an important question. Can you understand every Scotsman?

MCINTOSH: Absolutely not.

RAZ: Right. OK. So you can't expect Siri to understand them all.

MCINTOSH: No. You'd have to have a regional Siri that changes every 30 or 40 miles in Scotland.

RAZ: Well, Neil McIntosh thanks so much.

MCINTOSH: Thanks for having me.

RAZ: We asked Apple to comment on Siri's language issues. They directed us to their website where it says, since every language has its own accents and dialects, the accuracy rate will be higher for native speakers. I guess Siri doesn't consider Scotsmen native English speakers.

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