For the past couple of months, I’ve been working with an augmented communicator (let’s call him Bob) who is interested in using some type of smart home technology in his room at his group home.  It all started one day in therapy when Bob wanted to talk about the Orlando Magic.  The staff at the group home had put him to bed before the game ended and he didn’t know the score.  So, I pulled out my phone and asked Siri. “Hey Siri. What was the score of the Orlando Magic Game?”  Bam….just like that, Siri was telling us that the Magic beat the opposing team by 12 points. Bob was wide-eyed with wonder.  How could he have this power of quick information gathering?   I explained, the best I could, about this new-fangled technology and what would be necessary for him to have access to it.  I’m not confident he understood my explanation, nor whether what I told him was 100% correct, but he understood that this person named Siri answered his question right away.  Here was a communication partner that could be at his beck and call.  Siri didn’t tell him she was too busy right now, that he needed to wait, or that he needed to ask someone else to help him.   We asked and she answered.  Who wouldn’t want this power?

Since then, Bob frequently wants to use my phone to talk to Siri, this new new intelligent voice assistant. So, we go through the steps of teaching Siri to recognize the voice in the Accent 1400.  Now he is ready to say, “Hey Siri” and ask her to help him.    While there are some “listening” issues in using Siri with a speech generating device, overall, Siri is very good at understanding his voice output.   Bob’s challenge in using Siri is with his ability to produce language, in a timely manner, that makes sense to Siri and won’t be misinterpreted.  She is an intelligent partner, but she is only as “smart” as the rules that run her.

As an SLP,  how can I use the “Siri experience” to help address some of Bob’s language and communication interaction needs? How can learning to talk to Siri help Bob in his interaction with real people?

  1. Timing and Respect:  As an augmented communicator, you have to prepare your message in advance because timing is essential in using an intelligent voice assistant.   Bob doesn’t like preparing messages in advance because he likes having his human partner wait on him, providing him with her (or his) company and attention.   He has a pre-stored attention getting message (e.g., I have something to tell you) which is spoken, but isn’t displayed in his message window.  He is good at using that, but once he has your attention, you have to wait as he composes his thought word-by-word.  We’ve discussed the need to be respectful to his communication partner, especially when it is obvious that the person is busy or in a rush.  He is encouraged to first prepare what he wants to say, then approach the person, use his attention getting message, and then speak the message that he prepared in advance.
  2. Repetition isn’t Clarification: If Siri misunderstands you, it doesn’t help to keep repeating the exact same thing over and over.  Siri, unlike his human smart partners, is not going to ask clarifying questions.  Siri will just tell you she doesn’t understand. Bob is going to have to learn how to take more personal responsibility to clarify messages that are not understood.
  3. Adequate Information: Clear messages starts with talking to Siri with more than a one-idea message.  Bob wanted to check on a TV show and said, “all my children.” Siri wanted to know what was his child’s name in order to either call or track them on GPS.   Abbreviated communication with a human being is only effective when the communication partner is highly knowledgable about the life and interest of the augmented communicator.   Eventually, Siri will become as smart as a highly familiar human being and learn Bob’s interests and preferences, but until then, Bob needs to give an adequate amount of information (e.g., all my children + TV show).
  4. Clarify and Correct: Siri can be literal and can misunderstand what you say.  For example, Bob said, “my cavs” to Siri because he wanted to know the score of the Cleveland Cavaliers game (his second favorite team).  Siri heard “my cabs” and asked “Which app would you like to use? Uber or Lyft?”  He was befuddled by having a smart partner so totally misunderstand him.  He wasn’t able to provide her with clarifying information in a timely manner.  In a therapy session, we will take that experience and use it as a springboard to work on clarification and correction strategies. He’ll have to figure out how to talk to Siri to get her to understand him.
  5. Answer the Question: Siri will ask you questions and you have to answer her.   If you don’t answer, she’ll repeat the question once, then apologize because she can’t hear you talking, and then give up.  This is a good lesson for Bob who has been conditioned to not answer questions because of the many times that the inquisitor didn’t wait for or expect him to answer.

There is a lot more that Bob and I are going to experience as we explore how he might use an intelligent voice assistant. For now, I’m hoping that we can use his enthusiasm and motivation for talking to this new communication partner as a way to address some of his generative language needs and communication interaction strategies.