Out in the Open

How a teen with autism found a friend in Siri

Judith Newman found that her son’s conversations with the iPhone personal assistant translated into more facility in talking to actual humans.
Judith Newman (pictured here with her son, Gus) is the author of To Siri With Love. (Judith Newman/Harper)

It started when Judith Newman's son Gus was about 12.

Judith learned that Siri, her iPhone's personal assistant, will tell you what planes are flying over your head, if you ask.

"I was muttering to myself out loud: 'Why in the world would anybody decide that a machine should give you that information?'" says Judith. "And Gus, without thinking, who was just kind of walking by, said, 'So you know who you're waving at, Mommy.'"

From that point on, Gus was hooked. He started asking Siri more questions, and would spend hours learning the answers.

Gus has autism. And for him, "there's nothing like having a buddy who doesn't get sick of being asked the same questions, or being asked about the same subjects," says Judith.

She writes in her book, To Siri With Love, that she felt guilty. Was she mistreating her son by letting him talk to her phone all day?

But she was noticing that his conversations with Siri were translating into more facility with humans. 

"It's not just that Siri is polite. It's that she demands politeness of others. … So when my son would ask her for something and he wasn't getting the answer he wanted, he'd say 'That's not it!' or something. 

"Her response was, 'Gus, I'm trying the best that I can.' And he would immediately be brought back to saying thank you and please."

She also found that Gus's questions to Siri gave her insight into her son's mind. He would ask, "Do you have any friends?" and "Will you marry me?"

"He would never say to me, 'I'm interested in getting married someday,' or 'Sometimes I feel lonely,'"  she says. 

"Is it such a terrible thing he was able to say it to this robot?"

This story originally aired on October 29, 2017. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Can Robots Be Human?".