Do You Have a Librarian in Your Pocket?

A few months ago, you may have heard of the Tennessee teenager who was trapped under his truck and feared he would die when he realized he had activated Siri on his iPhone and was able to use her to call for help.  While most of us, hopefully, do not have as dramatic a need to use the built-in voice-recognition-based helpers on our phones, they do come in handy for more mundane things, like finding a nearby gas station or asking for directions or homework help.  Along with Siri, who is built into the most recent iOS devices, there is Cortana, which debuted on Windows Phone 8.1 and has made her way to Windows 10 computers and devices.

The day the Siri story broke, I was talking to my friend Lisa about Siri and Cortana while we were at work.  The discussion was basically if we saw a noticeable difference between the two and if, as library employees, we should fear being replaced by an AI librarian in peoples’ pockets.  Our Siri vs. Cortana review revealed many things, including that Siri can be sassy and Cortana has a sense of humor (more on that later) but ultimately came back to us realizing we do not need to fear for our job security just yet.

The way both Siri and Cortana work is they try to pick up words using voice recognition, apply natural language rules to figure out what you are asking and then either complete a task, such as when the teen mentioned above asked Siri to call 911, or answer a question you may have asked, such as how to get to a particular destination.  Like all electronic searches, they are pretty advanced in providing you with the answers, but have their limits.  For the most part you will get a relevant answer to your question, but if it is the best answer, a complete answer, or the most reliable source is subject to discussion.  Add in that, much to my surprise when I asked Siri about this, she said both use Bing as the default search engine (note, to change this in iOS, open settings and go to Safari and change the default search engine listed for the browser).  For testing purposes, this was very good to know, since this should mean one could ask the same question of Siri, Cortana, and do a search on the web version of Bing and get the same answer or set of results.

The test questions were conducted with one speaker asking exactly the same question to each and Cortana seemed to pick up words better than Siri.  For example, if asked what Brazil’s GDP was in 2011, both Cortana and Bing return the exact same results.  Siri somehow heard “what was Brazil’s gross Mystic in two thousand 11 feet.”  Siri also had some issues when asked to “explain Maslov’s pyramid.”  It is actually Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but I wanted to see if they could correct the errors.  Siri picked up the correction from Maslov to Maslow, but looked for pier amid, while Cortana made the name correction and looked for pyramid.  In the results, Cortana asked if I meant hierarchy of needs and gave relevant answers, while Siri stuck to the literal and gave me a mixed bag of results, although at least one would have gotten me to the correct information by clicking through a few links.  Bing, like Cortana, corrected the name and offered both the pyramid and hierarchy of needs in the results, so at least the difference in the results for this question seemed to be related to Siri's issues recognizing the correct words..  For directions, each was asked how to get to Mountain View Golf Course in Ewing New Jersey.  Siri was much better than Cortana, which showed mixed results related to the device.  Cortana on my phone wanted me to travel into Pennsylvania first, then take I-95 back into NJ for a 30 minute trip, when I was about ten minutes away in nearby Lawrence.  I suspected this was a location issue with the phone and tried Cortana on a Windows 10 PC, which gave the correct directions, but I needed to change the word course to club.  Bing and Siri were spot on.  The final test question was to see if we could get information on a nearby business location, so I asked each “where is the closest Home Depot?”  Cortana was the best with this type of question, although all three gave me the closest location.  Cortana excelled in giving me 7 choices, ranked by distance, and was the only one to include the Princeton location in the results.  Siri only returned one option, the Ewing location, and Bing gave me 5 but jumped to Pennsylvania after listing Ewing.

Connectivity was a bit of an issue using Siri, as the connection was easily dropped and resulted in two replies that she was “really sorry, but I can’t take any requests right now, please try again a little later.”  This issue was resolved by moving to another spot about ten feet away.  Cortana never disconnected so connectivity was not an issue with her results.  Of course the drop was not a flaw with Siri, just the generally weaker antennae found in Apple iOS devices.

Overall, both performed very well at getting you the basics, such as phone numbers, addresses and hard facts.  More detailed questions that require a bit more research and the need to verify sources still need a full search, and would benefit from having a librarian help the user review those sources.  Even the basic information needs to be verified, such as when I asked Siri which search engine she uses.  The results she supplied were dated 2013 so I needed to double check that it had not changed in two years.  It was not always easy to see how old the information was that I was being presented with, something that might be a burden if a business or person has moved or changed phone numbers.  Of course both do a great job at performing tasks with your phone, such as calling or texting a specific person, which one would expect since their initial purpose was to serve as the hands-free communication option for the phone.  The bottom line is either is handy if you need a late night cab, a quick answer to a trivia question or just want to get some basic data to get started on a more detailed search.  However, information verification and deep research still needs a computer and real people to sift through the results, so we breathed a bit easier knowing we librarians are safe for now.

Oh, about that sassy attitude that Siri has, that was discovered while Lisa and I were having a bit of fun.  Lisa had read that you could ask certain questions and get some “Easter egg” answers from either of our search helpers.  While the answers to some dumb questions are pretty funny, they still underscore that there are differences between the way the two will search and reply to you.  If you ask each one what zero divided by zero equals, Siri will ramble on about splitting cookies only to tell you that you have made Cookie Monster sad and you have no friends.  Cortana at least avoids the insults and says it is impossible and is something nature abhors, like vacuuming.  We also found it fun to ask them if they like each other.  Siri is a bit snobby and says she does not know Cortana, while Cortana says she thinks it is great that Siri is trying to help people.

- Laura N.

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