The voices of GPS and Siri: not what you think they are

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"Meet the Voice Behind Your GPS"

2:40   2/17/23

Meet Karen Jacobsen, a voiceover artist from Queensland Australia, who has one of the most recognisable voices in the world. As the original voice of GPS, she’s helped billions of us to reach our destination. Back in 2002, she recorded more than 50 hours of audio for the first ever GPS voice system, including 168 versions of the word “approximately”. Has she told you where to go? Recalculating.

Jacobsen articulately and succinctly explains how the sound engineers created the GPS voice and why they chose an Australian speaker for its basis:  "because the Australian accent was considered the most pleasant English speaking accent to listen to."  Don't react negatively to that until you hear how the engineers proceeded to work with the raw material they accumulated.

The fascinating account of another super famous voice that billions of people have interacted with during the last dozen plus years is entertainingly told here:

Accidentally Famous: The Story Behind the Original Voice of Siri | Susan Bennett | TEDxFurmanU


With a strong personality and a sense of humor, Siri and the voice behind her, give the story of voice acting and how Susan Bennett became the original voice of Siri. Susan and her voice talent were suddenly a persona on devices worldwide, thrusting her into accidental fame. Susan tells of how Siri was created and how she dealt with the fear of living up to the expectations of Siri.

I know many people who rely on Siri for countless decisions they make and information they seek.  They treat her as a real person and are truly grateful for her assistance.  I can hear it in their voices and see it from their demeanor.

I do not know how to use Siri or GPS, but I marvel when other interact meaningfully and usefully with them.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Gene Hill]


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    February 29, 2024 @ 10:01 pm

    I remember a similar interview, years ago, with the woman who was the voice behind such hits as "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and try again" and "The number you have dialed, 5, 5, 5, 1, 2, 1, 2, has been disconnected" – the spiritual ancestor of Karen Jacobsen, I think.

  2. Markle said,

    February 29, 2024 @ 11:53 pm

    @Jenny Chu
    You're probably thinking of Joanne Daniels. She was interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle and that interview featured in an episode of KQED's Bay Curious podcast. A native of Atlanta, she put on a mid-America accent for the role. She went through a similar process, recording "one, one, one, one, one, one…" and "two, two, two, two, two…", etc. for hours. She passed away in 2023 at 92.
    If you want to read or listen to it, I don't remember if we are allowed to post links so you can paste this onto the end of kqed dot org's root URL /news/11853891/you-used-to-be-able-to-call-pop-corn-and-get-the-time-what-happened-to-that

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 4:17 am

    "I know many people who […] treat [Siri] as a real person and are truly grateful for her assistance" . I confess that I find this both odd and disturbing. Such people must know that Siri is an entirely artificial persona, and that the voice that it uses, whilst (as I now learn) originates as the voice of a real person, is no more than computer-generated audio output — how, then, can they treat "her" as a real person rather than as a useful tool that simply uses a female voice with which to communicate ?

  4. AntC said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 7:24 am

    I'm surprised the 'engineers' were looking specifically for a Queensland accent. I find it rather harsh. (Although Karen's in the podcast has the edges knocked off.) I prefer an Adelaide accent: very calming

  5. KeithB said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 9:54 am

    Shoot, from The Naked Computer:
    "Eliza was supposed to be an example of farsical psychiatry. Instead, the headshrinkers of the day praised its psychiatric acumen, lauding the program as a therapeutic breakthrough. Some started telling Eliza there own tales of Oedipal conflict, sibling death wishes and fear of kittens. Weizenbaum was disgusted. 'They [psychiatrists] told me that with Eliza they could treat hundreds of patients an hour at state hospitals, ' he remembers in Katherine Davis Fishman's book _The Computer Establishment_. 'I concluded that many psychiatrists were doing no more than Eliza does. I was shocked at how easily people are fooled.'

    At least with Eliza running on your TRS-80 you don't have to worry about your conversation being saved in the cloud somewhere.

  6. Nat Shockley said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 9:56 am

    I don't think there is just one "Queensland accent" – you've got variation according to social class, education, whether someone grew up in a city (as Karen Jacobsen did) or on a farm… I'm from Queensland, and she sounds like basically everyone I know from there. But they're all educated middle-class city people.

  7. Terry Hunt said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 11:23 am

    @ Philip Taylor – I suggest that this is because we are so deeply adapted to treating an interlocutor as a person that it is far, far easier to think of an Artificial Interlocutor (to coin a term) as such while conversing, even though intellectually we know it is not.

    Obviously, coming to believe that such an "AI" is a real person denotes a deficiency of understanding, but consider how often actors are pestered by people who genuinely believe that a character they play in a soap opera (or whatever) is real.

    It may also have some cross-connection with the mental attitude of considering dogs, cats and other domestic animals as 'non-human people', which I have always done.

  8. Haamu said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 12:09 pm

    @AntC — I don't think they were looking for a Queensland accent. In the video she says they were looking for a native Australian female currently residing in the northeastern US, not northeastern Australia.

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