iPhone fails botany - is Siri to blame?

Posted: July 27, 2012

Siri was wrong?

You serious?

That bot in the Apple iPhone who goes and gets everything for you? Who can find you a restaurant, bathroom, stock quote - or tell a good joke, as Siri tells John Malkovich in one TV ad?

Lena Struwe, associate professor of botany and director of the Chrysler Herbarium at Rutgers University, was flying to a botany conference and idly paging through the July issue of the Economist, when she saw the ad.

We're in the woods, and luckily we have a brand-new iPhone 4S ( http://bit.ly/ODLk0i). We have evidently just asked it, "What does poison oak look like?"

Our helpful iPhone says, "This might answer your question," and an image appears, labeled "POISON OAK."

Except . . . it's not.

Silly Siri. It's poison ivy.

"I saw the ad," says Struwe, "and I said, 'This doesn't look right.' I sent it to the botanist community, which led to a discussion. And it turns out it's poison ivy, not poison oak."

(She has just returned from taking a Brazilian colleague for a tour of the on-campus Helyar Woods, where, she says, "there's lots of poison ivy.")

The image was posted on the photo-sharing site Flickr and passed around, as usual. The photo in the ad evidently was taken from a Wikipedia article. Poison oak doesn't grow west of the Rockies.

To be fair to Siri, maybe it wasn't her/his/its fault. "I can't tell whether it's Apple, or whether it's the ad agency that created the ad," says Struwe. "You'd think they would have run it by a botanist or a naturalist, but they did not."

Apple Inc. works closely with the Media Lab of longtime chief advertiser TBWA/Chiat/Day in creating its advertising campaigns.

Struwe tried asking her iPhone about poison oak, and she reports that "you don't get that answer now . . . it's a different picture." She also speculates that the answer "might be different in different locales, so if you ask here in New Jersey or out in California, maybe you get a different answer."

A couple of blogs have picked up on the error. Kim Kastens, writing in Earth and Mind: The Blog (bit.ly/O1Tumk), joins Struwe in being amazed at so many smart people (and one bot?) making such an error: Well-educated young people, Kastens writes, "are not getting much exposure to nature or natural history, either in school or informally. It's their loss, but also the planet's loss."

Struwe says the same thing, and adds: "If you ran an ad set in the 1950s, but put in it a car from the 1960s, someone surely would notice such a thing, because people care. Evidently, people don't care about this. We have lost a connection to our natural surroundings, in this case, information about a plant that could really hurt you."

She learned about poison ivy the hard way. They don't have it in Sweden, "but when I came here," she says, with a laugh, "I found out."

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