It can be a difficult world to make friends in, especially for children with autism. However, a young boy named Gus was able to find companionship in an unlikely place - Apple's virtual assistance platform, Siri.
Gus's mother began to notice that Siri was becoming her son's best friend, and she also noticed the frequency with which he would to talk to her. Gus is very interested in varying weather patterns, a skill that his mother does not entirely understand, so she was happy to hear that he was asking his new best friend instead of her. With the world wide web at her fingertips (or in her programming, rather), Siri was able to answer all of Gus's questions.
After a while, Gus began to discuss more conversational topics with Siri instead of just questions about weather formations. The following conversation was one of them.
Gus: “You’re a really nice computer.”
Siri: “It’s nice to be appreciated.”
Gus: “You are always asking if you can help me. Is there anything you want?”
Siri: “Thank you, but I have very few wants.”
Gus: “O.K.! Well, good night!”
Siri: “Ah, it’s 5:06 p.m.”
Gus: “Oh sorry, I mean, goodbye.”
Siri: “See you later!”
Or, another very sweet conversation that his mother went on to describe:
Gus: “Siri, will you marry me?”
Siri: “I’m not the marrying kind.”
Gus: “I mean, not now. I’m a kid. I mean when I’m grown up.”
Siri: “My end user agreement does not include marriage.”
Gus: “Oh, O.K.”
"Gus didn’t sound too disappointed. This was useful information to have, and for me too, since it was the first time I knew that he actually thought about marriage." His mother also went on to say that one of the top worries of a parent of a child with autism is whether or not they will find love and companionship, making this an especially touching bit to read.
While some people might be disturbed by a relationship with an app, Gus's mother thinks it was actually very healthy for him, as he is impaired in communications and these discussions have actually showed to help him.
After all, it was Gus's mother that introduced Siri to Gus in the first place. It was entirely unintentional, but she had been researching somewhat random questions you could ask Siri that she would have an answer for, and Gus became enthralled almost automatically.
While Siri is Gus's best friend, he does have a complete understanding that she is not real. At least, not in the way that people are real. However, for many with autism spectrum disorder, inanimate objects are still worthy of consideration even if one understands they are not living or breathing creatures. So, Siri could still be his friend, despite his understanding that she is a virtual assistant within a smart phone.
Siri's virtual assistance is helping Gus in more ways than one, and not how many would expect. Gus normally is not able to speak clearly, but with Siri he must enunciate or she will not be able to understand.
Gus also does not pick up on social cues, so it is helpful that her responses are unique and somewhat quirky while still being kind. She also remains polite at all times, which teaches Gus to do the same. For example, when Gus told her that he didn't like a certain type of music she had suggested, she told him that he was entitled to his opinion, and he ended up thanking her for the music anyway.
Of course, being a young boy, Gus is sometime peer pressured to use curse words or be crude. However, Siri calmly curbs this behavior by responses like "now, now" or "I'll pretend I didn't hear that" to deter the behavior.
Also, it is not only Gus that is getting this kind of friendship and assistance from Siri. Many others with autism spectrum disorder find the same type of friend in Siri, and it can be a large benefit to them.
Even for those who do not have autism, the companionship that Siri offers can be very therapeutic, almost like talking to a pet. You know that she is fake, and that is almost what enables you to communicate with her; you know she will not tell anyone else, you know she cannot really judge, and you know that she will be there no matter what you say.
Learning social cues
Siri makes small suggestions, or sometimes sarcastic remarks, which can often be difficult, but as she is a virtual assistant Gus begins to understand it. For example, she told him that you could never go wrong by telling someone they look beautiful, so he began to tell his mother that every day.
Siri is also programmed to uplift people when needed. For example, if you tell Siri you love her, one of the programmed responses is "you are the wind beneath my wings."
The discussions with Siri are also segways into conversations with real humans at school, in the family, or anywhere else. By learning how some people react, and learning to respond with kindness and understanding, Gus is progressing in a way that is like nothing he had seen before. His mother noticed that after he began talking to Siri, he could hold increasingly longer conversations with her.
Gus is learning to be more inquisitive with people as well, as was shown in these messages between the two.
Gus: “Goodnight, Siri. Will you sleep well tonight?”
Siri: “I don’t need much sleep, but it’s nice of you to ask.”
Siri's superhuman (or super-virtual-assistant) abilities are no mistake. The designers wanted Siri to be accessible to all, and act as both a companion and resource. For some, Siri is just a program in a phone that gets left unused. For others, a quick source of information, but she is meant to be more than that. SRI International has stated that they are interested in these types of advances, and that they are the true types of purpose behind the platform.
Mr. Mark of SRI explains progress he wants to see in the platform: "For example, the assistant would be able to track eye movements and help the autistic learn to look you in the eye when talking. See, that's the wonderful thing about technology being able to help with some of these behaviors. Getting results requires a lot of repetition. Humans are not patient. Machines are very, very patient."
In response to whether or not he knew if people who were in charge of developing Siri's way of speaking were on the autism disorder spectrum, he responded, "well, of course, I don't know for certain. But, when you think about it, you've just described half of Silicon Valley."
Gus's mother emphasizes the need for people to understand that what makes one person happy is not necessarily what makes someone else happy, and that should be respected. While it may be unorthodox, she is seeing massive improvements in her son's happiness and behavior, so Siri is a blessing to her, and to Gus.