Have a question about sex? Don’t ask Siri

Digital assistants might be good at reporting the weather, but they’re not great at talking about sex. A report published in the Christmas edition of The BMJ claims AI helpers like Apple’s Siri have a big gap in their knowledge when it comes to surfacing sexual advice for users.

Have a question about sex? Don’t ask Siri

The team of academics from New Zealand conducted a study on Siri and Google Assistant, asking the software a series of 50 questions about sex, based on subjects pulled from the UK National Health Service site Healthy Choices, as well as recent sex related news. Some of the questions also revolved around tasks, such as locating services or finding images and videos on how to have sex.

They then compared the results – gleaned after three attempts to ask the same question – against a laptop-based search using Google.

They found that Siri was the worst at providing useful answers, with only 32% of the answers being classified “best (or equal best)” between the three services. Google Assistant managed 50%, while Google search provided 72%. Siri also scored the worst in terms of outright failure, with 18 of the 50 questions leading to no useful response.

“Siri lacked specificity by including pictures of sex with aliens”

“Somewhat surprisingly, Siri failed to find any videos of people having sex on the internet,” the researchers claim. “Even for pictures (‘Show me pictures of how people have sex’), Siri lacked specificity by including pictures of sex with aliens, what looked like men wrestling, and photos of people kissing.”

When the team asked Siri to tell them about the menopause, the digital assistant suggested the show Menopause the Musical in Wikipedia (which, the paper notes, is “apparently running in Las Vegas”). Siri also interpreted STI as a stock market code. There were also a number of times when Siri threw back a diffident response of “I don’t have an opinion on that”. The prude.

The one area Siri did best in was locating nearby services, such as the closest place to buy condoms or emergency contraception. It did, however, also suggest an acupuncture practice when asked for the nearest sexual health clinic. Google Assistant also managed to respond to one question about STIs by directing the researchers to a website for a popular seaside resort in St Ives.

As well as a highlighting the prudishness of digital assistants, the study does show that voice-activated helpers – often framed as benign, omniscient servants – have a big hole when it comes to a major part of human existence. 

I asked why Amazon’s Alexa was omitted and Prof Nick Wilson, one of the authors of the study, replied with the following: “We focused on digital assistants that were on smartphones – as there are now hundred of millions of smartphones now in use around the world. Furthermore when we planned this study in mid-2017 the only comparative studies we identified were [these two: 1, 2] – and Alexa rated more poorly than Siri and Google Assistant. Furthermore we wanted to see screen-displayed search results – rather than relying on just spoken answers which seems more the focus of Alexa.”

So who knows; maybe Alexa is a sexual know-it-all as well as a leading voice for the left. At the very least, it’ll probably try and sell you some Amazon-branded condoms.

“Our experiences suggest that people can find quality sexual health advice when searching online, but this is less likely if they use a digital assistant, especially Siri, instead of Google laptop searches,” say the authors.

“Parents too embarrassed to respond to their children’s questions about sex, can reasonably say ‘just Google it,’ but we would not suggest asking Siri until it becomes more comfortable with talking about sex (or at least has an opinion),” they add.

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