There’s a lot that people don’t know about the woman behind Apple’s original Siri; the fact that she actually exists, for starters.
“People can’t believe there’s a human behind the voice,” said Susan Bennett, the Atlanta-based voice actor whose unmistakable cadence was used for the first version of Apple’s iconic ‘virtual assistant’ program. “That’s very surprising to people.”
It goes without saying, then, that most people don’t know that Siri (er, Bennett) also supports cannabis legalization.
“I really feel strongly that it’s silly not to legalize [marijuana],” Bennett told Civilized. “It’s much less dangerous than alcohol if you’re considering the social consequences… and I also believe in its medicinal purposes.”
Bennett is slated to speak at the New West Summit, the tech-focused cannabis conference taking place in San Francisco Oct. 14 and 15. While her presentation will focus on the origins of Siri and the tech industry as a whole, she is anticipating a more cannabis-centric conversation during the question-and-answer period.
“The irony is I’m probably going to be the only person there not smoking pot,” Bennett told Civilized with a big, non-robotic-sounding laugh.
While she freely admits that she’s tried it in the past – “I was a college student in the ‘60s, for heaven’s sake” – Bennett doesn’t consume cannabis herself anymore. And while she can’t necessarily envision herself “getting on a dais and proposing that everyone smoke pot”, she was more than happy to participate in the conference when organizer Jim McAlpine first approached her about it.
“Jim already told me, ‘You know they’re going to ask you if you were high [while recording] all this stuff’,” said Bennett. “And I already told him ‘No, I wasn’t, but after the first few hundreds of phrases I did feel my brain get a little swimmy.’”
Siri’s surprising origin story is a topic that often takes centre-stage at Bennett’s public speaking gigs, which have become her bread and butter since revealing herself as the voice behind the original voice-activation program three years ago.
As her audiences discover, Bennett found out about Siri right around the time that everyone else did; that is to say, a friend of Bennett’s heard what appeared to be her voice coming out of his new iPhone and brought it to her attention.
It turns out Apple purchased recordings produced by Bennett from a text-to-speech company called Nuance. The recordings, which had been laid down for a client in July of 2005, were completed through gruelling four-hour-a-day sessions during which Bennett would read one nonsensical phrase after another.
She wouldn’t hear them again for six years, at which time she heard them on her friend’s iPhone.
While Apple has never officially confirmed that Bennett was the original voice of Siri (nor paid her directly), audio experts have determined it to be the case. And although the company has since replaced the original Siri with a similar-sounding voice actor (Bennett surmises it’s because they wanted to maintain the mystery behind the voice after she came out to the public), Bennett’s voice can still be heard on Apple products that came before the iPhone 5s. It’s still weird every time she hears it.
“I was used to hearing my voice on radio, TV, commercials, but to hear my own voice coming out of this little tiny computerized phone, it was creepy. It was extremely creepy,” said Bennett, adding that she feels “ambivalent” about having been replaced by a voice that sounds so similar it even tricks some of her closest friends.
“I jokingly say I kind of got the best of both worlds because I can promote myself as the original… and when Siri starts leading people into the sea, it won’t be my voice.”
That, and she gets to devote much of her time to speaking at conferences and other events; a new direction her career has taken that's proven to be equal parts challenging and “really, really fun.”
Thinking ahead to the New West Summit, Bennett is anticipating a number of open-minded discussions about “this crazy tech world we live in”, the blossoming cannabis industry, and the countless ways the two are bound to intersect in the months and years to come.