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Siri's Position On Abortion? A Glitch, Not Conspiracy, Apple Says

Dec 2, 2011
Originally published on December 5, 2011 2:59 pm

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're out to get you.

That could be the motto this week for abortion rights groups that immediately sprang into battle mode when it was discovered that Siri, Apple's new artificially intelligent personal assistant, wasn't so, well, intelligent when it came to abortion.

It turns out, however, that it was all much ado about not so much.

True, Siri does fail to find multiple abortion providers in large cities like Washington and New York City. She (the voice is female) also tends to send inquirers instead to far-flung pregnancy crisis centers, which not only don't do abortions, but also actively work to dissuade women from having the procedure.

In a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan complained that Siri "is not providing your customers with accurate or complete information about women's reproductive-health services."

Some advocates wondered if there was a conspiracy afoot.

"There was conjecture by many colleagues that perhaps they were afraid of the anti-choice community, or perhaps, as one put it, it was a bunch of dudes programming, who didn't have any notion of what women might need," said Jodi Jacobson, editor-in-chief of RH Reality Check, a leading abortion-rights website.

But it turns out not so much.

"Siri is a dumb tool," says Damon Poeter, a reporter for PC Magazine who wrote a story about the dustup.

By that he means not literally dumb, but perhaps not as smart as she sometimes seems. For example, Siri doesn't do searches based on Google, which Apple sees as a rival, but on other, newer search engines.

But Google, he says, "has had a decade to refine its results and get smarter and smarter about deciding what people actually want when they do searches. Siri is still in its infancy, so we're going to see things like this happen."

There's another reason Siri may be favoring crisis pregnancy centers — they tend to use the word abortion a lot, while actual abortion clinics may not, if only to avoid protesters.

"So when Siri goes out into the Internet looking for what an abortion center is or what an abortion provider is, it hits on these non-abortion-providing organizations because they're the ones who use the word to underlie their websites," Poeter says.

Jacobson agrees that abortion-rights forces need to do a better job getting information out.

"I think this is telling about a broad set of issues about the reliability of information on the internet, and the ways in which we might be self-censoring, that then lead us to have search engines that don't fully inform us about what we need," she said.

On the other hand, many women's groups have lamented that many tech products, Siri included, are clearly designed by men, primarily for men.

Indeed, a quick experiment from NPR headquarters in Washington using a colleague's borrowed phone found Siri unable to find a single birth control clinic ("sorry about that"), but 16 drug stores where Viagra could be purchased ("12 of them fairly close to you!")

OK, then.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Is Siri anti-abortion? She is the voice-activated tool that comes on Apple's newest iPhone. And earlier this week, abortion-rights groups raised a fuss when Siri sent people seeking abortions to anti-abortion sites. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Let's get one thing straight. On its face, Siri can seem, well, a little sexist. Siri, where can I get birth control?

SIRI: I don't see any birth-control clinics. Sorry about that.

ROVNER: Obviously, there are plenty of places to get birth control here in Washington, D.C. Then, I asked her for Viagra.

SIRI: I found 16 drugstores; 12 of them are fairly close to you.

ROVNER: But what outraged abortion-rights advocates was that in many large cities, particularly New York and Washington, when you asked Siri where you could get an abortion, she would respond with something like this.

SIRI: I found two abortion clinics a little ways from you.

ROVNER: By a little ways, Siri actually means 27 and 74 miles respectively and neither of those are actually abortion clinics. Both are crisis pregnancy centers. They're places that not only don't do abortions, but actively try to talk women out of having them. Both cities, by the way, have multiple abortion clinics.

Jodi Jacobson is editor of RH Reality Check, a prominent abortion rights website.

JODI JACOBSON: Initially, people thought that the programmers had deliberately left something out. There was conjecture by many colleagues that perhaps because they were afraid of the anti-choice community...

ROVNER: But it turns out the actual reason is far more mundane.

DAMEN POETER: It is, at the end of the day, just a dumb tool.

ROVNER: Damon Poeter is a reporter with PC Magazine. He says there's two things going on. One is that Siri doesn't use Google, by far the most sophisticated of the search engines.

POETER: Google has had a decade to refine its results and get smarter and smarter about what people actually want when they do searches. Siri is in its infancy.

ROVNER: The other is that crisis pregnancy centers do search engine optimization. They use the word abortion a lot because they want to attract women in search of abortion. That's not the case with actual abortion clinics, says Jodi Jacobson.

JACOBSON: And the ways in which we might be self-censoring, then lead us to have search engines that don't fully inform us about what we need.

ROVNER: Apple says it's working to fix the problem. Julie Rovner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.