Thursday, May 15, 2014

She tells drivers where to turn and makes announcements to air travelers in Delta terminals. The world-famous female voice broadcaster also speaks through numerous phone systems, including the iPhone 4S. Since the product's 2011 debut, she's been answering questions like, “How's the weather?” and “What's the meaning of life?” The world knows that unmistakable voice as “Siri,” but CNN recently revealed that the real woman behind Siri is Susan Bennett, a voiceover actor who lost her native New England accent years ago and now lives in Atlanta.

“Siri” Just a Routine Gig for a Voiceover Actor
Bennett had no idea back in 2005 that 100 million people would one day hear the recordings she was laying down for a client at the time; the iPhone hadn't even been invented yet. In fact, Bennett didn't know her voice was being used by Apple until 2011, when a colleague with a new 4S, told her. Bennett had been a voiceover actor since the 1970s, often working from a recording booth in her suburban home.

Who is Siri?
Despite her famous voice, the suburban Atlanta resident enjoyed virtual anonymity until 2013, when an online web-tech news video about Siri caused a stir that had people asking who was really behind Apple's voice-activated virtual "assistant." Bennett's husband and son had already been pushing her to step forward when the video hit the internet; after all, the Australian and British “Siris” had already revealed their identities.

A few months earlier, CNN reporter Jessica Ravitz just happened to be interviewing Bennett for a story on Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the world's busiest airport, where Delta Airlines broadcasts her voice. Ravitz had known nothing about Bennett's identity as “Siri” when she phoned her about the story.

Identity Revelation an Accident
During their phone conversation, Ravitz interviewed Bennett about her career, asking about previous voice work, and that's when the CNN reporter suddenly put two and two together, audibly gasping at the realization. At the time, Bennett swore her to secrecy, however. Months after the interview, though, a tech-news site released the video leading to questions about Siri's identity, after which Bennett contacted Ravitz to set the record straight.

Bennett hadn't signed a nondisclosure agreement preventing her from discussing her identity, but neither Apple nor the software company that originally recorded the “Siri” voice samplings are commenting. Marcus Graham, CEO of GM Voices, another employer of Bennett's, says he isn't surprised. The industry is wary of stories that might be distracting, he explains. However, an experienced audio-forensics expert says he has no doubt that Siri's and Bennett's voices are one and the same.

Siri's Past and Future
Bennett, of course, needs no expert to tell her whose voice she hears when Siri speaks. In fact, now that she has her own iPhone, she admits that “talking to herself” is a bit strange, to say the least. Cameron Bennett, who first discovered his mom's latest claim to fame while watching an iPhone commercial, says being “Siri's son” has its challenges. When he was in college, he explains, he once called his bank only to hear his own mother's voice telling him his balance was down to $4. GPS is tough, too; who wants a parental lecture while driving?

However, Apple's iOS 7 mobile operating system means Susan Bennett's voice as the American Siri will fade over time. “What will Siri do next?” you might ask. Will she miss us? What does she think of the new iPhone virtual assistant?

For many, there's still time to ask before Siri retires completely from public life.