The Automation of Politeness

The other day I noticed my daughter started saying “please” when interacting with Siri:

“Hey Siri, play Let It Go, please.”

“Hey Siri, please play Raining Tacos.”

“Hey Siri, play I am a Gummy Bear, please.”

Of course, Siri doesn’t understand “please,” nor does it care if you say it or not. And yet, for a child who is growing up talking to machines, it can be confusing to understand the differences between talking to other people and talking to computers.

Why are we polite to one another? Why do we teach our kids to be polite? Why do others get upset when they feel we’re rude to them?

In its best form, politeness is a form of empathy — it’s a recognition that I am asking something of you, and you, being human, have your own things going on. It’s about being considerate and courteous.

Often, however, politeness is an automatic, mindless thing we do. Our interaction with computers is accelerating this dumbing down of politeness. When we say “please” or “sorry” or “excuse me” or “thank you” to a computer, it dilutes the deeper meaning of the words.

This also shows up in technology like Gmail’s smart compose feature (the thing that autocompletes as you type, or suggests replies to emails). I’ve noticed it’s been suggesting polite responses to emails more often. If a computer can suggest politeness, that implies that there’s a predictability to how we use it, and is therefore automatable. But true politeness is only superficially automatable, because true empathy isn’t automatable.

Alternatively, as kids get used to not needing to be polite to computers, will they then be less polite to people? Will they get confused over when it’s ok (and not ok) to be rude or inconsiderate?

It makes me think: are we going through the motions with one another and expressing things a computer would say, or are we being truly thoughtful, empathetic and considerate? When I think about kids growing up in today’s (and tomorrow’s) world, my biggest concern isn’t all-powerful algorithms. It’s that the ubiquity of technology that we interact with in human-like ways will weaken our empathy muscles.

Tim Cook said it best:

“They’re worried about machines taking jobs and AI sort of replacing humans. My worry is not that machines will think like people — it’s that people will think like machines.”
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