Here’s an interesting stat from the Pew Research Center: more than half of smart speaker owners in the US (54 percent) report saying “please” at least occasionally to their AI assistants, with one-in-five (19 percent) saying please frequently. Curiously, the question of AI politeness also breaks down along gender lines, with 62 percent of women reporting that they say “please” at least sometimes, versus 45 percent for men.
Why that might be?
One possible answer is that men are generally ruder to women, and this latter category now includes AI assistants coded as female. Experts have long noted that the design choices for AI bots could have misogynist effects by reinforcing gender stereotypes. “Because the speech of most voice assistants is female, it sends a signal that women are … docile and eager-to-please helper,” a report from the UN noted earlier this year.
It could also be that men just have different attitudes to technology. Culturally speaking, tech is coded as practical and manly, and contrasted with “feminine” disciplines. Studies show men feel more comfortable with technology, and express more interest in “mastering” it as a tool. These biases could be affecting the issue of politeness to AI.
Sadly, Pew didn’t ask respondents why they felt they had to say please or not to these bots, so we can only speculate on the topic. But the broader issue is certainly an interesting one: do you need to be polite to AI assistants?
Some take the line that of course you don’t need to say please and thank you to smart speakers, because they’re just machines and you don’t say please to your toaster. Others respond that, well, you don’t talk to your toaster, so the comparison isn’t fair. There’s also the issue of encouraging bad habits. Some parents worry that if their kids are rude to Alexa they’ll be rude to humans, too. Tech companies acknowledge this latter point, and have added functions that reward children when they’re polite to AI.
I’m not sure where I sit on the issue myself (as it happens I don’t say “please” to my smart speaker) but I do think it’s a genuinely important question. AI assistants are only going to become more sophisticated and more common in the future, and the norms we establish now will probably stay with us for decades to come. Do we want politeness baked in? What if you’re not talking to a speaker but a humanoid robot?
I think there’s a danger that if we’re polite to our machines we’ll overestimate their capabilities and start ceding too much power to them in our lives. They’re just machines, after all, and machines controlled by uncaring corporations at that. We shouldn’t feel indebted to them, even in the smallest interactions.
But on the other hand, if a greater percentage of our daily interactions involve machines, and if these interactions are social in a way they’ve never been before, it might make sense to maintain our human standards and continue saying “please” and “thank you.” In a future in which we’re surrounded by robots, we should avoid becoming robotic ourselves.