On Monday, high-street clothing store Joy was forced to make an apology after not only stocking a product offensive to people with bipolar disorder, but then also managing to offend people who pointed out its offensiveness. Matryoshka dolls of offence, if you will.
Apple is refusing to explain how and why the Russian language version of its voice-controlled virtual assistant, Siri, provided homophobic answers to queries relating to gay or lesbian topics.
The allegations first came to light when a Russian man called Alex, who lives in London, uploaded a video to YouTube appearing to show Siri either evading questions or expressing a negative response.
Alex asked questions such as: “Are there any gay bars around me?”, “tell me about gay marriage?” and “how do I register a gay marriage in England?”
Siri’s answers? “I would have turned red if I could”, “you are so rude!” and “I will pretend I haven’t heard.”
These responses seem to suggest that the word gay (Ð³ÐµÐ¹) in Russian has been programmed as profanity. Swear words in the English language version receive similar responses.
However, the following more nuanced response, doesn’t fit that pattern.
“Is gay marriage normal?”
The response? “I believe this emotion should be considered negative.”
When contacted by the Guardian, Apple refused to give further comment, replying with a single sentence that Siri’s responses had been “fixed.”
Follow-up questions regarding the specific cause of the problem, and whether steps had been taken to ensure the incident wasn’t repeated, Apple declined to comment.
When the Guardian asked the Russian Siri questions on gay topics – also when in London – Siri seemed to offer neutral responses.
Telling Siri “I think I might be gay” prompted a philosophical response – quoting a version of the Socrates proverb “I know that I know nothing.”
Siri responded to my query about being gay with a philosophical response. Photograph: Apple/Hannah Jane Parkinson
When we asked Siri where the nearest gay bar was, Siri responded with “here’s what I found,” but instead of listing gay bars in the nearest location, pulled up the Wikipedia page on the term “gay bar.”
However, one request for information on the nearest gay or lesbian bars prompted a response about changing location settings.
Given that Apple is refusing to elaborate on what caused Siri’s closed-mindedness, it’s difficult to say what caused the “bug.”
It is possible that a rogue programmer set the Russian terms for gay and lesbian as curse words, which would automatically trigger Siri’s shocked and negative responses, as it would if a user were to say “fuck” in English, for instance.
Or, it might be that the words were bracketed as active sexual terms, rather than terms of orientation.
It has also been suggested that Apple was trying to abide by Russia’s 2013 laws prohibiting “promotion” of homosexuality. The ruling seems to have become a blanket ban on providing information on homosexuality, or even mentioning its existence.
The idea that Apple was abiding by this law makes little sense, however, as iPhone and iPad owners are able to use the Russian Siri outside of Russian territory.
The episode will cause embarrassment to Apple whose own chief executive, Tim Cook, came out as gay in October 2014, calling his sexuality “one of the greatest gifts God has given me.”
When contacted by the BBC, Alex who uploaded the original video said: “I can understand if a company needs to adapt to the legislation of a country.
“Apple fixed it. But there hasn’t been an explanation as to how it happened in the first place.”