Siri's Identity

Reimagining Inclusive AI and Critiquing Today's Identity-Blindness

by Will Penman, Princeton University

Extended Abstract

This webtext is guided by a single question: What identities do we make available to people through the artificial intelligence (AI) agents we create? This question speaks to issues of representation, interaction, and identity in an emerging technological context. To answer it, a corpus of about 25 popular YouTube videos created by underrepresented people about Apple's voice assistant Siri are brought together together for the first time. Each video in this corpus either reimagines Siri to be more like the creator (to be black, Mexican, gay, lesbian, Muslim, Jewish, or Mormon), and/or critiques Siri for not understanding certain people's accents and for subtly taking on dominant identities.

I analyze the corpus videos in the form of two videos, each a little less than 20 minutes long, in order to adequately draw in the YouTubers' literal voices regarding AI and identity. In part 1, "Reimagining Inclusive AI," my focus is on what would be involved for Siri to take on a different identity, especially since Siri isn't traditionally embodied. The YouTube corpus shows these reimagined Siris adopting culturally specific knowledge, values, ways of interacting, and commercial activity. These provide a roadmap for developers to create intentionally identity-based voice-driven AI. In part 2, "Critiquing Identity Blindness," my analysis turns to how the YouTube corpus critiques today's Siri. This part finds three reasons why today's real Siri might read as occupying dominant identity categories (straight, white, nonreligious, and unaccented). These point to opportunities to "revise" Siri's self-presentation.

Overall, the project hopes to surface critiques and possibilities that, because they've been presented humorously on YouTube, might otherwise go undetected. At a larger level, this effort seeks to bring diverse representation and equity to our AI imaginary itself.


Thank you to the creators of the YouTube videos that this webtext analyzes. Thank you to Mary Glavan, my writing partner. Thank you to Cheryl Ball, David Rieder, Madeleine Sorapure, Doug Eyman, and the other participants in KairosCamp 2017 who encouraged me early in this project. Thank you to my father-in-law Bob Phelps for a stimulating conversation that inspired the conclusion. Thank you to students in Mary P. Sheridan's Spring 2019 Digital Storytelling class for roadtesting this webtext, as well as to Nathan Van Patter and Declan Barnes for giving valuable feedback. Thank you to reviewers Lucy Johnson and Jennifer Carter for helpful Tier 1 suggestions.


[Download print version of this webtext: abstract, framing text, transcripts of Parts 1 and 2, and notes - to be inserted upon approval of the text] This print version is meant partly as an accessibility device, but mostly as a way to accommodate scholarly reading practices, which often depend on being able to store something away for future use.