Thanks to the popularity of Apple’s iOS devices and the Cupertino company’s knack for product marketing, you don’t have to be a regular Siri user to recognize her voice. Two years ago today, she made her debut alongside the iPhone 4s, and she’s been our virtual personal assistant ever since.
But who is the real Siri? Who provided that voice that we’ve all become so familiar with?
Her name is Susan Bennett, and she’s been a voice actress since she was young. She recorded the Siri voices back in 2005 — six years before Apple unveiled the feature — but she had no idea they would ever end up in the iPhone.
Bennett began her life “as a machine” as Tillie the All-Time Teller, the first ATM machine, back in the 1970s. Although her voice is probably most recognizable as Siri, it can be heard all over the world on telephone systems, satellite navigation devices, public address systems, and in commercials. It can also be heard in Delta airport terminals.
Until now, Bennett has kept her Siri secret quiet — partly because she wasn’t sure she wanted notoriety, and partly because she wasn’t completely sure she could, legally — but as the feature celebrates its second birthday and new voices replace the old ones, Bennett revealed all in an interview with CNN.
So what persuaded her to come forward? Well, it all started with a video from The Verge entitled “How Siri found its voice,” which led viewers to believe that voiceover actress Allison Dufty was the voice of Siri. Dufty denied the claims soon after the video was published, but that only left fans even more eager to find out who the real Siri actress was.
“I was very conservative about [coming forward] for a long time,” Bennett told CNN. “And then this Verge video came out … And it seemed like everyone was clamoring to find out who the real voice behind Siri is, and so I thought, well, you know, what the heck? This is the time.”
Bennett revealed that she starting working on the Siri voices in July of 2005 for ScanSoft, a software company that was working on a new project. For four hours, every day, she would have to sit down and read nonsensical sentences and phrases in her home recording booth.
Her recordings would then be pulled apart, altered, synthesized, and loaded into a database. But Bennett never knew what her voice would be used for after that. She assumed it would end up in company telephone systems — as it often did — but she “had absolutely no idea” what her work would actually be used for.
Six years later, she received a surprising email from a friend.
“Hey, we’ve been playing around with this new Apple phone,” it said. “Isn’t this you?”
Bennett didn’t have “the new Apple phone,” so she had to visit Apple’s website and watch the promotional videos on Siri to see the feature in action. It was at that point that Bennett realized the voice recordings she made six years ago were now a part of the headline feature in the new iPhone 4s.
The story about how CNN’s Jessica Ravitz found Bennett is just as fascinating.
“Bennett was a voiceover artist I was interviewing for a CNN special project on the world’s busiest airport, ” Ravitz writes. “I was tracking down the airport’s voices, and she, a voice of Delta terminals, was one of them.”
“In the course of our phone conversation, I asked her to rattle off some jobs she’s had over the years. She gave me a quick and general rundown and then added that she’s done a lot of IVR work.”
Ravitz asked Bennett to clarify what “IVR work” was, and Bennett said it stood for “interactive voice response… the sort of thing you hear on a company’s phone system.”
“For reasons I can’t explain,” Ravitz says, “I blurted out, ‘Hey, are you Siri?’”
“What followed was a short, panicked flurry of non-denials and non-confirmations, and a promise from me that I wouldn’t do or say a thing.”
Two weeks ago, following the confusion over The Verge’s video, Bennett contacted Ravitz and said she was ready to reveal who Siri really was.