Apple had Siri deflect questions about #MeToo and feminism, leaked papers reveal

An Apple project to rewrite how the Siri voice assistant handles sensitive topics like feminism and the #MeToo movement told developers to either not engage, deflect or inform.

According to leaked documents obtained by The Guardian, the project saw Siri's responses rewritten to never explicitly say the word "feminism" -- although it was OK for the AI-powered assistant to say it was in favor of equality.

Apple's guidelines explain that "Siri should be guarded when dealing with potentially controversial content," and that when questions are directed at the voice assistant, they can be "deflected. ... However, care must be taken here to be neutral."

The Guardian reports that a question like "Are you a feminist?" used to receive a more generic response, like, "Sorry, I don't really know." Now, however, the responses are tailored to the query, but don't take a stance: "I believe that all voices are created equal and worth equal respect."

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Apple CEO Tim Cook talks about Siri during an Apple event.

Apple CEO Tim Cook talks about Siri during an Apple event. (Reuters)

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The internal documents are part of a huge cache leaked to the British outlet by a Siri grader who was unhappy with what they perceived as ethical problems in the program. The Guardian also learned the scope of the grading program -- Apple shut it down last month -- showing that graders checked almost 7 million clips just from iPads from 10 different regions worldwide.

In a statement to The Guardian, Apple said: “Siri is a digital assistant designed to help users get things done. The team works hard to ensure Siri responses are relevant to all customers. Our approach is to be factual with inclusive responses rather than offer opinions.”

However, some outside observers were critical of this type of response.

“The problem with Siri, Alexa and all of these AI tools is that they have been designed by men with a male default in mind. I hate to break it to Siri and its creators: if ‘it’ believes in equality it is a feminist. This won’t change until they recruit significantly more women into the development and design of these technologies," Sam Smethers, the chief executive of women’s rights campaigners the Fawcett Society, told The Guardian.

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Apple is launching its latest iPhone 11 models at an event on Tuesday.