Features

Alum revealed as voice of iPhone’s Siri

Susan Bennett ’71 sang a cappella at Brown and witnessed its transition to co-ed education

By
Science & Research Editor
Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Susan Bennett ‘71 said she was overwhelmed by the public’s response when she revealed herself as the voice of Siri earlier this month.

Years before the voice of Siri echoed in the pockets of millions of iPhone users, it sounded across Brown’s campus in classics courses and Chattertocks concerts.

The voice, known for its polite advice and darkly sarcastic humor, belongs to Susan Bennett ’71, who earlier this month announced her role in working with Apple.

Siri, the voice-activated iPhone assistant, was launched in 2010 as a downloadable application, according to an article in the Huffington Post. When Apple launched the iPhone 4S in fall 2011, the company marketed the full integration of Siri into the phone as one of its most noteworthy new features.

But until this month, the voice behind Siri remained a mystery.

Bennett revealed to CNN that she was the voice of the Apple product after being encouraged to do so by her husband and son, she said. She added that people had started to speculate a different woman had voiced Siri, after that woman appeared in a video on the website the Verge explaining the history of smartphone voices.

“It took me a long time to decide to reveal my identity, so to speak,” Bennett said. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with public scrutiny and notoriety.”

 

A voice on campus

Originally from a small town in upstate New York, Bennett said attending Brown presented a “culture shock.”

“It was a bit of a traumatic time,” she said, adding that though she had received an excellent high school education, she was not used to being surrounded by “so many brilliant and wealthy people.”

Bennett attended the University in the midst of major administrative changes: When she arrived on campus in 1967, she was enrolled at the all-female Pembroke College, but by the time she graduated in 1971, Pembroke had merged with Brown. At Pembroke, Bennett recalled, she was summoned by a bell to formal meals in the dorms at which she was required to wear skirts and sit in an assigned seat.

“It went from that kind of conservatism to co-ed dorms,” she said.

At Brown, Bennett met her first husband — Curt Bennett ’70 — who later became the first American NHL player to score more than 30 goals, she said.

Bennett concentrated in classics, originally intending to become a teacher.

She also found opportunities to develop her voice, acting in Sock and Buskin plays and leading the Chattertocks a capella group.

“That was a very important part of my life at Brown,” Bennett said of her time in the Chattertocks. “It was really fun to sing harmony with people.”

 

Finding Siri’s voice

Bennett said she became Siri somewhat serendipitously, calling her career as a voice actress a “complete and utter accident.”

“I’ve always been interested in words and language,” Bennett said, recalling her pursuit of Latin as a Brown student. “But I was mainly a singer.”

After graduating, Bennett moved to Atlanta, where she found work singing jingles.

One day, the voice actor for a commercial she was recording failed to show up. The owner of the studio told Bennett to read the actor’s part because she did not have an accent.

And with that, Bennett’s voice career was born.

“I took some voice coaching lessons and just started to work,” she said.

When Apple decided to use a human voice in its products, an Apple employee found recordings of Bennett’s voice on an agent’s website “and just happened to choose it,” Bennett said.

 

Recording history

Bennett made the initial Siri recordings throughout July 2005. She worked four hours a day, five days a week, reading thousands of nonsensical sentences constructed by linguists and audiologists, she said.

They created sentences that incorporated countless combinations of vowels, consonants and syllables, “so that they would have in their banks of information just about any combination, any sound that could possibly happen,” she said.

After she recorded all of the sentences, the linguists and audiologists broke them apart, extracting certain sounds and reconfiguring them to make any phrase they needed.

Bennett returned to the studio to record updates in 2011 and 2012.

“It was a challenge in a way because most of the text-to-speech work is quite tedious,” Bennett said. “You are reading a huge list, and you have to keep the same intonation and same pacing. … Everything had to be read very, very clearly.”

Siri is unique because she sounds human, Bennett added, which in 2005 was a major technological feat.

 

‘Siri classic’

Siri doesn’t just sound human — she’s programmed to respond with “a little bit of attitude,” Bennett said, recalling one of her husband’s interactions with the robot.

“When he first got the phone, he didn’t realize that he had it on the setting that enabled Siri to speak every time he picked up the phone,” Bennett said.

When it asked him, “How may I help you,” he responded, “Well you could just go away!” Bennett said.

Siri snapped back, “What did I do to deserve that?”

With the introduction of iOS7, Apple may have begun to phase out Bennett’s voice, she said. She recently purchased a 5S after losing her phone on the way to an interview in New York and said sometimes the voice sounds like her, but sometimes it sounds like someone else.

“In case they’re phasing me out, I call myself Siri classic,” she said.

 

Overwhelming response

Bennett’s trip to her interview in New York was just one of many jaunts she has made since her reveal, which she described as “overwhelming.”

“I had no idea that people were so interested in this,” Bennett said. She returned home to 500 personal emails after her first interview with CNN, she said.

“I didn’t realize people had such a close relationship with her,” Bennett said.

That interest extended to Brown’s campus, where multiple students have called Bennett’s job “cool.”

“I didn’t realize it was an actual person. It sounded more like an automated voice,” said Vittoriano di Vaio ’14.

“I wonder how she feels about how you can choose a man’s voice now,” said Victoria Leonard ’15.

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