Ever since it was introduced in the iPhone 4S, Siri has been asked almost every question imaginable, from who won the 1947 Super Bowl (trick question – the Super Bowl didn’t exist until 1967) to whether or not she has a boyfriend (Siri says her end user license agreement is commitment enough).
But when asked a politically fraught question, Siri gave a totally unexpected answer.
Twitter was abuzz after a picture surfaced showing what Siri gave as a response when asked, “What is an Indian?” After searching, Siri found an answer on Wikipedia that read, “They are a bit brown and they smell like curry and eat it.”
— Saral (@saralgupta) June 23, 2017
The response plays to racial stereotypes, and the offensive statement garnered many disgusted replies on Twitter.
The question becomes how could this possibly happen?
When Siri is asked a question, it runs a script that searches the internet (using Bing, since Google is their arch rival) for what the AI believes to be the best response. It doesn’t always get an answer, and when it does the reply can be wildly off the mark, but Apple engineers continue to improve Siri’s search algorithms with every update.
In the case of being asked, “What is an India?”, Siri found a Wikipedia article under “Indian” and displayed the first sentence. So the offensive reply really wasn’t Siri’s fault.
In fact, the racist comment comes from Wikipedia, the only information repository. Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, and one user decided to change the article under “Indian” to display the offensive stereotype.
The edit was performed by wiki user Thedarkoverlord123 on June 8, 2017. It only lasted about three minutes before a Wikipedia steward caught the vandalism and changed it back, but by then someone must have used Siri to pose the fated question, generating the despicable response.
That same user also edited two other Wikipedia entries, one for Diwali and another for Carbonara. The Diwali entry had a similarly racist explanation for the Hindu holiday.
Judging by the poor grammar, this is likely just a Wikipedia prank that went too far. Wikipedia has systems in place to prevent this kind of vandalism, as evident by the fact the offensive sentence only stayed up for three minutes, but no system is perfect.
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