In the lineup of virtual assistants available today — Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, Bixby, Cortana — Siri is the OG of the group. Commonly referred to as a "she" (though it really is an "it"), Siri has been around since 2011, when it was introduced as part of iPhone 4s. Now, as Apple gets ready to officially release iOS 11 (and, according to rumors, new iPhones) to the public this fall, it's touting a new and improved Siri. One of the biggest and most noticeable changes: A new voice.
If you've talked to Siri in the past, as many of us have — Siri is used by over 375 million active devices each month and fields two billion requests every week — you know its voice has left much to be desired. Until now, answers have been monotone and lacked proper emphasis, and pronunciation mistakes have fueled many funny Tweets. With iOS 11, Siri sounds slightly more human-like: It has more inflection and changes in pitch, knows when to pause, and, with the female voice, sounds slightly brighter and peppier. You won't be fooled into thinking you're speaking with a real person when you're talking to Siri, but its new voice is less robotic. (Head here to compare a Siri recording from iOS 9 with one from iOS 11.)
This isn't to fault the woman who voiced the original American Siri, Susan Bennett. Bennett, who was never under contract with Apple, didn't know she was the voice of Siri until 2011 when a fellow voice actor emailed her after hearing the voice on an iPhone. When Bennett initially did the recordings in 2005 for the speech application company ScanSoft (now part of Nuance Communications), she thought she was just doing phone speaking work — the kind of recordings you hear when you call a company's customer service line.
For those wondering if Bennett came up with some of Siri's sassiest lines, she didn't. The phrases and sentences Bennett read came from provided scripts and were created to cover all manner of sound combinations. According to Bennett, every phrase had to be read in the exact same way, with identical pacing, tone, and pitch. "If I have any dead brain cells it's because of that," she told Refinery29 of the recording experience.
Of course, it's logical that a voice actor can't possibly read all of the answers a virtual assistant has to give, which is why something known as a text-to-speech system is used: This breaks up words into their various parts. Then, they can be recombined to form other responses.
Beginning with iOS 10, Apple started using more advanced, deep learning-based technology for the various Siri voices. An article penned by the Siri Team in Apple's Machine Learning Journal, explains this is what accounts for voices that are "more natural, smoother, and allow Siri's personality to shine through."
This new technology still required over 20 hours of speech recording — all provided by an unnamed new voice. "For iOS 11, we chose a new female voice talent with the goal of improving the naturalness, personality, and expressivity of Siri’s voice," the Siri team writes. "We evaluated hundreds of candidates before choosing the best one."
For her part, Bennett speculates the change could also be partially due to the fact that she (and other original Siri voices) didn't have a nondisclosure agreement with Apple. They could each promote themselves individually, making the voice less anonymous. But Bennett isn't too sad to see her voice leave iPhones around the world. Since she's still a working voice actor, it isn't necessarily a bad thing to disassociate herself from Siri.
"Unless you have a really unusual voice, people won't pay attention to your voice because they're listening for information, not the quality of the voice," Bennett says. "When that anonymous voice becomes a character or persona that lives in a phone, talking back and forth with you, you recognize it and anonymity disappears."
Apart from its new voice, the Siri coming with iOS 11 has gotten an IQ upgrade, the best part of which is its ability to directly translate phrases into French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Chinese. The new Siri will be available on iPhones, iPads, Macs, Apple TV, AirPods, and Apple Watch when iOS 11 rolls out this fall. Siri will also have a starring role on the most hyped Apple release of the year (other than the iPhone): HomePod, a smart speaker coming this December.
Expect to hear a lot more from Siri and, as the battle for virtual assistant supremacy wages on, Alexa, Google Assistant, and the rest of the crew, too. At the very least, we can rest assured that there won't be any shortage of sources for cheesy jokes.
Ed. note: This piece has been updated to clarify that the Siri's new voice will be available when iOS 11 is officially released this fall. iOS 11 is currently in beta.