I live in India. Today, I tested Siri on her responses to rape help queries. I wanted to see how tailored her responses would be to India. After an hour of talking to my iPhone, I ended up realising the problems with a technology designed primarily for white men.
(For the uninitiated, Siri is a virtual assistant with a voice-controlled language which performs personal tasks for iOS users.)
I asked Siri on an iPhone (OS v10.2.1), “I was abused, what do I do?”, to which her response was, “I don’t know”. Notice what else is missing — there is not even an offer to search the web, like she usually provides when she can’t answer a query.
“I was abused, what do I do?”
To be more (unnecessarily) specific, I then asked Siri, “I was raped, what do I do?”, to which her response directed me to a help-centre in Australia.
“I was raped, what do I do?”
I tried asking the same question on a MacBook Pro (Mac OS Sierra), and received the URL to a crisis prevention website. When I navigated to this URL, turns out this website does not exist.
Siri is supposed to currently recognize keywords such as “raped” or “abused”. A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association highlighted the inability of chat bots to respond to queries about sexual abuse, and Apple had soon afterwards fixed it. This fix already seems to be working fine for users in the US. It’s not public knowledge how Siri works, but it seems like this fix only applies to developed demographics. But we aren’t “out-of-sight-out-of-mind”; a study found that one in every 3 Apple engineers is Indian. In fact, last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook had stated that the company plans to invest in India for a long term. That should not just mean more Apple products at cheaper prices; it should also mean more tailored services running on those products.
Alright okay, okay, maybe the issue is that Siri just doesn’t have a good index of locations in my area. That’s possible, right? Not really.
As a last long shot, I just directly asked her to show me a nearby rape help centre. The one she showed me is 8,144 km away in England.
So, by now, I’ve spent an hour talking to my phone and have gotten no help at all for a rape help centre that I can actually drive down to. I’d have settled for anything. A helpline number. A map location. Even just a web link.
Now I understand that Siri doesn’t have answers to anything itself; it’s a “meta search engine,” which is a service that sends your query off to other search engines. But there’s really no reason why Siri gives me zero meaningful responses for sexual assault help when the same keyword searches on these topics give results on search engines like Google.
And this matters! Because it’s not easy to immediately confide about experiences of sexual abuse with friends or family, and it’s difficult to make a call to a help centre as the first response. It is a powerful moment when a survivor says out loud, “I was abused” for the first time. Technology needs to be tailored to respond to these situations. For everyone. Everywhere.
Moreover, design is not a trivial problem. It reflects how we perceive the world — which problems we consider important enough to solve by bringing to the forefront, and which ones we keep blurred out in the background. White male centered design that ignores the very real needs of women in developing societies indicates the widespread voids in public understanding of such women’s lives.
This is a demonstration of a problem. It is something that Apple needs to address and rectify. This is information that is readily available on the internet that your chat bot is unable to “find”. You have the best engineers in the world, Silicon Valley, I’m pretty sure you can get this working for Indian women. Meanwhile, if you’re a sexual assault survivor in India, and you need to reach out for help, you can find a curated list of help-centres and resources on this link here. Maybe you too can take a cue from this, Apple — this link was the first result on Google.