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When Apple’s intelligent voice assistant, Siri, was introduced with iOS 5 in 2011, it was touted as the next big thing. Since then, millions of people have used the “humble personal assistant” to perform all sorts of tasks, from playing songs, checking the weather, searching the web, and asking more obscure questions like: “What is the meaning of life?” (42!)
Through it all, Siri has delivered. She’s proven to be a valuable tool that can even learn and adapt to each user, proving that her time as your number two hasn’t been in vain. And at the forefront of that caring, often funny assistant is a voice recognized the world over. That voice belongs to Susan Bennett.
In an interview with MakeUseOf, she tells us how her work as Siri has changed her life, why she fears for the future, and why you should be nice to the assistant who helps millions of people every day. Check out the full audio interview at the end of this article.
How Siri “Changed” Her Life
It all started in 2005, when Bennett signed a contract with ScanSoft (a company later bought by Nuance) to record various parts of speech such as vowels, consonants, syllables, and diphthongs. Day after day, hour after hour she painstakingly read sounds and phrases that contributed to “a bank of voices,” which also included those of other actors and actresses. Engineers strung together these sounds to build words, sentences, and paragraphs, which were then mastered to produce Siri.
Sounds difficult, right? Well it is. The official term for this type of language recording is called “unit selection” or “concatenative speech synthesis,” and it takes hundreds of hours of reading “A,” “E,” “I,” “O,” “U,” and thousands of other combinations of speech to create sound capable of resembling a human. Considering all this, it’s amazing the type of grueling and often boring work voice actors endure to produce enough content for intelligent assistants.
— Susan Bennett (@SiriouslySusan) May 15, 2016
Bennett expained that she spent “4 hours a day, 5 days a week for an entire month reading basic vocabulary” and hundreds of combinations of speech. Sounds mind numbing, right?
Thankfully, that mundane task eventually paid off, in a big way. With the release of the iPhone 4S in 2011, Bennett found that her voice was used as Siri.
“I recognized my voice [as Siri] as soon as I heard it.”
And although Apple and Nuance have never confirmed her voice as the “original Siri”, Bennett knows it’s so. And so does the rest of the world
“Apple has this big thing about secrecy, so they didn’t like the idea of their ‘Siri voices’ promoting themselves.”
Thankfully, others know too. A forensic expert with over 30 years of experience told CNN that Bennett’s voice is “a 100% match.” And the CEO of GM Voices, who worked with Bennett for many years, also said: “Yes, she’s the voice of Siri … she’s definitely the voice.”
After some speculation, it now seems Bennett has been rightfully attributed as the “original voice of Siri,” which has surely changed her life.
“Being the original voice of Siri has been an interesting thing. I’m speaking at tech events and doing other work like that.”
And she does know how to stay busy. Bennett said she appears at tech conferences, continues with voice work, sings in a 60s and 70s rock and soul band called “Boomers Gone Wild,” has hosted a TED Talk, and continues to tell her story to inquiring journalists who want to know more about how she became the most recognizable voice in the world. Let’s just say, she’s very active.
You would think with that type of exposure, she’d be recognized everywhere. Well, truth be told, she says she’s not identified as Siri as often as you’d think, because her “regular voice is different and has a higher tone.” Her Siri tone is lower, she claims.
When she does drop it down, however, there’s no doubt she sounds like the personal assistant. You tell me. What do you think?
Susan Bennett and Siri are one, and will always be remembered as such. Her time as Siri, which is now over after the iOS7 update in 2013, has greatly changed her life for the better.
“As far as my life goes, it’s certainly changed. It has added a branch to my career.”
Her Fear for the Future
Although everything seems to be going great for Bennett, there is something she does worry about: The future of voice actors.
As she explains, the concatenation process and the “flow” of virtual languages have gotten so good that it could put voice actors out of work. Those hours spent making sounds for voice assistants — though sometimes boring — help to create a multi-million dollar industry, one that many rely on. And that industry could die if artificial intelligence continues to adapt, a thought shared by many in various fields.
“As we get closer and closer to artificial intelligence, it’s going to get pretty scary. In the nearly 5 years that this technology has been out, the flow of these virtual language assistants has gotten so much better than it was originally.
There’s a possibility that it could be putting voice actors out of work. The same way many machines, computers, and especially artificial intelligence are going to be putting a lot of humans out of work.”
Thankfully, there are some ways to become a voice artist before the inevitable AI takeover. You could even make it big, too, like these video game voice artists or like Bennett, who doesn’t dwell on the future, evident by her positive and active lifestyle.
In fact, she’s quite enthusiastic and helpful, which is why I asked about her favorite Siri tip.
Be Nice to Siri
Her favorite tip, as she explained, is one that everyone can take advantage of. She said that everyone should “be nice to Siri” because, as she so eloquently put it:
“She’s incredibly vindictive and does know where you live.”
That is, if you save your home address under your contact name.
To enable this feature, go to Settings > General and then Siri. Select your Contact profile to be added in My Info.
After enabling this, yes, Siri does know where you live and put the information to use especially in the Apple Maps app. If you’re worried about Apple’s Siri spying on you, that generally doesn’t happen (at least most of the time).
— Shay Meinecke (@ShayMeinecke) July 24, 2016
Bennett also spoke to me about her favorite Siri Easter egg:
Here’s the transcript:
“I like “Ah, Clem” from the Firesign Theater, which is a comedy group who do a lot of improv and funny but sarcastic humor.
Clem was a character, a computer hacker. This was created in the 70s, so many people probably didn’t know what a computer hacker was. Well, Clem wanted to go to the Fair of the Future so he could hack into the main computer. And when he arrives he’s taken aback by a hologram who asks for his name. He’s so startled he says, ‘Ah, Clem.’ From then on, he’s known as ‘Ah, Clem’ and refers to himself as ‘Worker.’ So, if you speak to Siri and say, ‘Hi, Siri. Worker here.’ Siri will say, ‘Hello Ah, Clem. What function may I perform for you?'”
An Incredible Experience
Discussing with Bennett about her work as a voice actor and time spent working for Siri was more than interesting. She’s a positive person, open about her experiences, and a hard worker. It’s been fascinating talking to her about how she became one of the world’s most recognizable voices.
Find Out More about Susan Bennett
If you’re curious to know more about Bennett’s life and experience as Siri, feel free to check out her website at susancbennett.com. She’s an inspiring person and certainly interesting. It was truly a pleasure to interview her and learn more about her thoughts, concerns, and interests, both personally and professionally.
If you would like to hear the entire interview, you can do so on the MakeUseOf YouTube video shown above. Enjoy!
Has Susan Bennett inspired you to give voice acting a try? Or are you more worried about the AI takeover? Share your thoughts in the comment section below…