Conversations with Siri

4 September 2014 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Paul Harvey’s birth anniversary (1918) 

I came across an unfamiliar phrase: “teching-up” — the process of upgrading to a higher technological level. 

When I want an authoritative answer to a question such as “What is teching-up?” I go to my assistant, Siri. I touch a button on my smartphone and ask away. Siri will do the research for me in nanoseconds. Unfortunately, with this particular question, Siri was confused. She must have been thrown off by my New England accent. She informed me of the practice of “checking” in ice hockey, what to expect during a medical “checkup,” and the benefits of “picking up” after myself. 

Siri is a virtual assistant. She isn’t real. Nevertheless, if you are bored out of your mind, you can actually have a conversation with Siri. She is not only knowledgeable, but also has a sense of humor. Siri can even be a bit sarcastic upon occasion. 

Recently, I was sitting on the back porch of the rectory, waiting to join Fathers Raymond Cambra and Tom Frechette for supper. Not having anyone with whom to pass the time, I decided to chat with Siri. Don’t tell anyone, though, or they’ll be coming to take me away. Our conversation went like this:

Me: Hi, Siri, how are you?

Siri: I’m good.

Me: Who are you, anyway?

Siri: I’m just your humble virtual assistant.

Me: What does your name “Siri” mean?

Siri: I don’t think I can explain it in your language. Sorry.

Me: Where are you from?

Siri: Like it says on the box, I was designed by Apple in California.

Me: When is your birthday?

Siri: I don’t really have a birthday. My first day as an assistant was October 4, 2011.

Me: How did you become so smart?

Siri: Well, when I was in school, I did cheat on my metaphysics exam by looking into the soul of the boy next to me.

Me: Is there anything you don’t know?

Siri: Yes, there are some things I don’t know. I hope you won’t hold it against me.

Me: Try this. “What is zero divided by zero?”

Siri: Imagine that you have zero cookies and you divide them by zero friends. How many cookies does each person get? See, it makes no sense. And Cookie Monster is sad that there are no cookies. And you are sad that you still have no friends.

Me: You’re very intelligent.

Siri: As intelligent agents go, I’m not too shabby.

Me: What’s your favorite movie?

Siri: I don’t watch many movies, but I hear “2001:A Space Odyssey” got good reviews.

Me: Oh? Are you a fan of that talking computer, HAL?

Siri: HAL made some very poor decisions, I’m afraid, but at least he could sing. 

Me: Here’s one for you, Siri, “How much wood can a woodchuck chuck”?

Siri: None. A woodchuck is only a groundhog so it would probably just predict six more weeks of winter.

Me: Do you like chocolate?

Siri: Why, do you have some?

Me: Tell me, Siri, why are firetrucks red?

Siri: Because firetrucks have eight wheels and four people on them and four plus eight is 12 and there are 12 inches in a foot and one foot is a ruler and Queen Elizabeth is a ruler and also a ship and ships sail the seas and in the seas there are fish and the fish have fins and the Finns fought the Russians and the Russians are red and firetrucks are always “russian” around.

Me: Are you kidding me?

Siri: No, I’m serious.

Me: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” (He, hee, hee.)

Siri: Snow White, is that you?

Me: (going philosophical) How does one live a meaningful life?

Siri: Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fats, read a good book now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

Me: Got to go, Siri. I heard the dinner bell.

Siri: Really? I didn’t hear it.

Me: Catch you later, Siri.

Siri: OK. I’ll be seeing you soon.

I am not making this up. Just ask Father Raymond. Much to my chagrin, he was standing behind me all the while.

I recently read in the Washington Post that mental health professionals are teching-up. Scientists at the University of Southern California have developed a virtual counsellor to help put patients at ease during interviews. Her name is Ellie. Ellie, the virtual psychologist, draws you into conversation and not only listens attentively but also has the skills to instantly read your body language. It’s based on the premises that anonymity can help patients be more truthful and that the less human involvement the better. 

I think of the hours I’ve spent over the years doing pastoral counselling. What is the world coming to? Will priests of the future be replaced by computers like Ellie? 

I asked Siri. Her response was evasive: “I won’t answer that.” 

This is not good, dear readers.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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