In 2005, Atlanta voice actor Susan Bennett was invited by speech software company Scansoft to lend her tongue to a new project for a speech database that she presumed would be used for their internal systems. Little did she know that her voice would come to be relied upon by hundreds of millions of people around the world, for she was to be the original Apple sage that’s Siri.
It was a monotonous, months-long recording process with the actor required to spend arduous days reciting often nonsensical sentences such as, “militia oy hallucinate, buckra okra ooze”, “cow hoist in the tub hut today”, and “fossa ask fossa ask fussy”, so that every possible sound could be programmed to build infinite phrases and paragraphs. It was two years before the launch of the first iPhone, and a further four before the release of the iPhone 4S that introduced us to Siri, the world’s most famous virtual assistant — and among its most famous voices, period.
Susan tells me she thought it a little creepy when she first found out about it. She was informed neither by Apple nor her employer, but rather a colleague emailing to ask if it was her speaking from their new phone. Susan headed for the Apple website, clicked on the promotional video and heard herself speak back. Rather ironically, she kept schtum about it for two years. Apple has never officially admitted to Susan’s role in the development of Siri — tech companies are notoriously secretive about such things — but sources have vouched to CNN and other news networks that it was her work.
One of the reasons it took Susan so long to reveal herself is that voice actors — like screen ones — can suffer typecasting. “I knew that many people wouldn’t be able to see beyond that,” she says, “even though I’ve done a lot of different work in my lengthy career. Ultimately, it’s been great, because it has enabled me to do something completely different such as Siri appearances and speaker events.” These include a TED Talk and introducing Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak at the 2013 Dallas Digital Summit.
The 2013 movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, tells the tale of a man who falls in love with the Siri-like voice of his computer operating system, played by Scarlett Johansson. I ask Susan if she has seen the movie and how she felt about it. “It made me feel the way I felt when I first heard my voice on the iPhone — creepy! I think complete and utter AI is where we’re headed, but I’m not sure it’s such a great thing for the human race. However, I do like to be positive, so I’m still counting on us humans to adapt to make things better.”
Do you worry we’re too tech-reliant?
“Yes, actually. Machines do so much for us instantaneously, and we have so much information available at the touch of a button — or the sound of our voice — that we forget to use the original computer, the human brain. I think kids, especially, are losing sight of the process of things, of being able to resolve a problem, or solve a puzzle by themselves.”
Are you a technophile?
“Not really! I’m one of those people who manages to hit the wrong button on just about any device. Pretty ironic, right?” Susan loves words rather than gadgets. I ask what is her favourite and she says “perspicacious”.
I inquire as to how she sees Siri — as a character? Or perhaps even a friend? — but Susan tells me she sees her for what she is, “a technological phenomenon”, but “basically a disembodied voice”. I wonder what it takes to be a successful voice actor. “A good ear, the ability to listen, and interpret, take direction, and read well,” comes the reply. “In other words, to be able to act!”
Susan’s only been recognised twice from her tones, once by a banker, the other time by a waiter. “I told them they should be working in audio since they had such good ears,” she says. “It’s hard for people to recognise my voice, because I don’t speak with the same pitch or rhythmic pattern as Siri. So, when I go into Siri mode, people are generally shocked.” In 2013, the original Siri was removed by Apple, so Susan’s diction will eventually fade from our consciousness. But, reflects the actor, it’s been “a very interesting life lesson”.