Siri and numbers

Several years ago, I wrote a post about using Siri to dictate measurements as I take them. I still do that, and it still works very well because Siri is fast and accurate at transcribing numbers. By using Siri as a sort of secretary, I don’t have to switch between my measuring tools and a notebook, and I don’t have to worry about mistyping a number on my phone’s keyboard. Over the past year, I’ve learned a new Siri trick with numbers: addition.

In my job, I often need to go through a set of drawings of a building or a machine, determine how many times a certain feature or part is used on each drawing, and then add them up. This obviously isn’t hard work, but it’s dull, and it’s easy to make mistakes when work is dull. But Siri doesn’t care if the work is dull, and because of the way it answers questions, it provides an automatic error-checking system.

Let’s say I have a list of numbers to add—all the Grade 5 bolts used in a machine housing, for example. I say, “Hey, Siri, what’s seven plus twelve plus fourteen plus four plus…” and wait for the answer. Siri responds, “Seven plus twelve plus fourteen plus four plus… is 73.” I not only get the result without a math error, I also get an echo of all the individual numbers, so I can make sure that Siri understood them all1 and that I didn’t skip or misread any of them. It’s faster and more accurate than I can do it with a calculator or spreadsheet.

There are limits. I’ve found that Siri tunes out and just won’t answer if the list of numbers is too long. Siri can handle lists of over fifteen numbers, but I generally don’t try more than about ten at a time. It’s easy enough to break a long list into sublists that Siri can then add later. Also, dictating out a long list of “A plus B plus C plus D plus…” is tiring and prone to error on my part.

(I do feel a twinge of embarrassment at using voice recognition and network access just to add a column of figures. That’s a lot of computing resources to throw at a such an elementary problem. But it’s a better way of adding.)

As you might expect, Siri can be weirdly persnickety in how you phrase the request. For example, “Hey, Siri, add one and two and three” will get the response “One plus two is three.” Not helpful. But if you ask, “Hey, Siri, what is the sum of one and two and three,” it will tell you what you want.2

I came across this way of getting sums in the past year because of the pandemic. I’ve been working at home, where there’s a HomePod near my desk, and one day it dawned on me that if it could understand my telling it to play “Sketches of Spain,” it could handle simple addition. I doubt I would have ever learned this at the office because

  1. I don’t use Siri on my Mac.
  2. If I pick up my phone to do a calculation, I’m going to open PCalc out of habit.

It was only because I’m used to talking to my HomePod that I thought of doing the sums this way. As things head back to normal and I spend more time at the office, I’ll try to take this lesson with me and do more by talking to my phone and watch.

  1. I’ve sometimes garbled my words badly when doing this, but I’ve never caught Siri in a transcription error. I think the word “plus” makes the context clear, and every number is interpreted as such. 

  2. I prefer saying “and” repeatedly to saying “plus” repeatedly, but I usually forget the proper preamble (I just had to test it to write this paragraph) so I typically go with the “plus” formulation.