When you say “This is worker speaking. Hello” to Siri, Apple’s intelligent assistant responds “HELLO AH-CLEM. WHAT FUNCTION CAN I PERFORM FOR YOU?” The explanation of this, one of Siri’s sometime astonishing Easter Eggs, takes us back to ELIZA, a 1960s chatbot, and The Firesign Theatre, a comedy troupe with an devoted following in the late 1960s and 70s.
When The Firesign Theatre released its fourth album, I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus, the group had already established its reputation of combining erudite intellectual references, surrealistic humor, heavily produced audio, and sophomoric sexual and scatological double entendres, into sketch and longer form audio. Being a Firesign Theatre fan in the 1970s served much the same purpose as identifying as a Jon Stewart fan does today. It signaled that you were in on the joke about American politics and culture. And, that you were apt to dabble in marijuana.
Bozos is framed as a highly detailed vision that a fraudulent fortune teller sees in a crystal ball. In the vision, Clem visits a futuristic amusement park, inspired by Disney’s animatronic president and past World’s Fairs. As science fiction, it is prescient, imagining immersive reality, voice recognition systems, personalization, and computer hacking.
It’s not that a hacking culture didn’t exist in 1971. It’s that the hacking culture remained focused on the telephone system, building blue boxes, and performing stunts like routing a phone call twice around the world before ringing your next door neighbor. Telephones were ubiquitous. Computers were expensive and rare, locked into climate controlled rooms, accessible only to a technical elite.
When Clem, his name misheard by the park’s personalization system as “Ah, Clem”, has his opportunity to ask the president a question he, instead, decides to hack it, accessing the system’s maintenance mode by saying “This is worker speaking. Hello.”
What follows this is a stream of consciousness word salad from the computer character. But those words held meaning for the select few who were both Firesign Theatre fans and knowledgeable about computers. It included actual jargon recognizable as coming from a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-10 computer. This was the deepest of inside jokes, prompting those who recognized the jargon to wonder how esoteric technical jargon ended up on a comedy album.
We now have an answer. Phillip Proctor, a member of the Firesign Theatre, in Quora comment, says:
ELIZA, written in 1966 by MIT Computer Science Professor Joseph Weizenbaum, was one of the first chatbots, simulating the role of a Rogerian psychotherapist. Intended to show how easy it was to use pattern matching to generate apparent conversation, it had just the opposite effect, as ELIZA users projected deep emotional involvement onto their interactions with this program. ELIZA went viral, or what passed for viral in the computer science world of the late 60s.
But how did this homage end up in SIRI? According to Proctor, Steve Jobs, who he met at a Pixar screening of a film in which Proctor was a voice actor, told him that he was “a big Firesign fan” and insisted this be included in SIRI.
So, when you channel Proctor-as-Clem, tell SIRI that it’s worker speaking, not only are you activating state-of-the-art cloud-based natural language processing, you are triggering a set of associations that take you back to the earliest artificial intelligence experiments, and sharing a comedy moment of which Steve Jobs, too, was a fan.