In this guest post, Grace Frances (main photo), Conversational Copywriter at VERSA, asks with tech becoming more and more ubiquitous in our lives, how friendly should we be getting with it?
It’s a surprisingly existential question when you dig into it.
Throughout the world, smart speakers are becoming ubiquitous. Based on figures from the United States, we predict that the current Australian ownership of digital assistants will grow from one in four households to one in three by the end of 2022.
This rapid increase has brought up the effect of AI devices on children – with toddlers interacting with the disembodied voice of Alexa or Siri just as much as adults. So what’s the etiquette around how to talk to such a human-like device? It seems rude to be rude, but strange to be too polite. It’s still a device after all.
The double-bind of minding your manners
The linguistic concept of politeness hinges on our conflicting needs for involvement and independence. In all interactions, we oscillate between the two – the drive to be socially involved and understood, and the drive to be unique and independent. Politeness is a strategy for negotiating the world and balancing these conflicting needs.
Generally, we use manners to help others feel acknowledged and respected in their individuality, as well as involved and socially connected. Neglecting manners, the speaker can appear rude, entitled or selfish. You see the complexity in this double-bind of negotiation between connection and distance.
So should we be paying the same respect to our AI devices as we would pay to a friend?
Humanising the AI
AI has been intentionally humanised. It’s been designed with a human-like voice, make-believe feelings and opinions and the ability to tell jokes and stories. One of the first steps of building a chatbot is to create the personality.
Think ‘a middle-class 28 year old living in downtown New York, sharp wit, a zest for life and new experiences, enjoys people-watching and drinking black coffee.’ In other words, some serious character building goes on, imbuing the AI with human characteristics – otherwise known as anthropomorphism.
Dehumanising the AI
In contrast, Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic suggests that the possession of a slave is centred around dehumanising the slave. This has become a common lens to consider how we treat robots and digital assistants – with dehumanisation easily justified because, well, they’re not actually human to start with.
Research shows that many people are inclined to use niceties like please and thank you when using digital assistants, as if the assistant were a person; while others prefer to completely ‘dehumanise’ the AI, using direct commands without the courtesies – which is where abusive comments come in, if the virtual assistant doesn’t quite get it right.
But with reports of kids yelling commands at Alexa and Siri, some parents have been worried that their kids are turning into monsters. To address this, Google’s ‘Pretty Please’ and Amazon’s ‘Magic Word’ kids’ functions were brought out to encourage the use of manners when using digital assistants, prompting and positively reinforcing the use of the ‘magic word’.
And it’s not just kids – grown adults have also been known to yell at digital assistants, even using abusive gendered comments. And given that it’s still a form of communication and conversation – albeit with an AI – our interactions influence and inform us. So it’s worth considering how these digital experiences might inform our real-time, non-digital conversations with actual humans.
The lines have started to blur. Toddlers growing up today have not known a world pre-AI, and in the eyes of a child, the difference between real and imaginary can be quite opaque. The fact that the AI device is not at all like their flesh-and-blood family or friends – but is actually devoid of feeling, emotions or physical form – might not be so black and white for a child.
So should kids be encouraged to see AI as their friend? Should they be told to use manners with AI devices – which is at heart just a machine – or does that blur the line even further?
It becomes deeply complex and philosophical to ponder these questions, to which the answers are still unclear. In the words of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, we need to ‘live everything, live the questions now’. As a society living through these exciting, intriguing times, we are certainly ‘living the questions’ – of which there are many.
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