Alexa, please

Does being polite to AI make us more human?

Lately, I’ve been saying please and thank you to Alexa. I wondered if I was the only one. I gave up long ago believing that anything we did, like naming a daughter Daniela, was original or unique to anybody’s generation, so I googled this behavior and discovered, sure enough, it’s become like a thing. So much so a thing that it’s even beginning to trouble experts in the field. There’s a field? Who knew? They have done studies and everything with results already in.

“The results may seem innocuous, but they trouble experts like Sherry Terkel, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is researching people’s relationships with such devices. She called them pretend empathy objects ‘that know nothing about the human experience.’ [harumph]” So I’m not unique, only just innocuous. I don’t say that like it’s a good thing. But I don’t get why it’s disturbing.

This portion of the article by A. Pawlowski in TODAY ends on a downer note from Sherry, “when we treat machines as though they were people, we allow ourselves, people, to be treated as objects to be fooled in this new game. Artificial intimacy is the new AI.”

Alexa’s tone is so polite and upbeat, though, whenever she responds. No matter how nasty I sound when I growl a command at her. Rough night last night?. It doesn’t matter to Alexa. She’s unflappable. Whether it’s “Alexa, turn off the lights” or “make fart sounds,” nothing changes the chirpy, upbeat attitude in her “ok!”

If I understand it correctly, the etymology of polite customs began not as etiquette but just as nice things to do to keep from getting beat up, or worse, killed. Elbows on the table? Can you imagine how crowded it was in those public houses of yor sitting next to knights in chainmail and battle axes? It was, “how many meads are you paying for, asshole? You’re taking up too much room with your elbows on the table!”. Eventually, everyone just got it. Don’t eat with your elbows on the table. It became more than just the sensible thing to do, it evolved into the polite thing to do once people saw the damage that a battle-ax could do in a crowded room. Do you think Ivanka eats with her elbows on the table when it’s just her and Jared? No! And I’m sure they have plenty of room around their table. I don’t think Jared would be abusive about it either. It’s just the polite thing to do now, even though it no longer makes any sense.

I hope no children are reading this. I don’t mean to start a revolution at dinner time or anything, but the evolution of etiquette seems to be from the sensical to the non-sensical. Whether it makes sense or not, it does continue to make us feel good about ourselves when we behave correctly, though. Most likely, because it’s been beaten into us. In my case, it was with a long wooden spoon that my mother kept next to her at the dinner table, although she did not find it impolite to use the same spoon to ladle more beans onto a plate after it had been in contact with the top of someone’s hairy head.

I grew up in a family with four kids. Six, eventually, as immigrants were wont to do, but for a long time, just four. My father had recently been a busboy at a Clifton’s Cafeteria but had just brought home his first check from a better paying job at the Hoffman’s Television factory. So my mother got us all dressed up, and my father took the family out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant on Hollywood Blvd. Very fancy.

There was even carpeting on the floor, but it did not extend to where they sat large, boisterous groups that wandered in without a reservation. It was linoleum for us. My mother wasn’t happy so close to the swinging doors of the kitchen, but it would have to do. No one’s English was good enough to complain. Not anyone’s old enough to listen to, anyway.

At some point, after the food had been placed before us, my little brother accidentally dropped a knife on the floor, and when he bent to pick it up, my father hissed, “don’t pick it up, just leave it there!” My sister said, “Really?” He replied , “Yes, the busboy will pick it up and bring you another one; just leave it there.” I guess he knew. We all thought that was just so cool, though! Wow. And what a clatter. A minute later, my other brother dropped his fork on the floor, and then a moment later, I did, and then my sister did it too. My father was so exasperated with the can he had just opened. I remember he threw his hands up and looked into the air above his head. I don’t know at what; he’s never been religious. It’s the only memory I have of us all going out to dinner before high school.

So somewhere along the line of restaurant jobs my college-educated father had, it became impolite to pick up your own silverware off the floor in a fancy restaurant. I guess it’s something to do with germs on public floors near kitchens because at home, it was impolite to leave it for your mother to pick up. Not something you could pull with that wooden spoon she wielded like a club lying next to her. So that’s how etiquette evolves.

Lately, I just don’t like the sound of my daughter snarling at Alexa. And although I know exactly why she does it, it’s a knee-jerk reaction that I have to the sound of someone being rude. Even though she is only a talking machine, I don’t feel as if I’m being treated as an object simply because I say please to her. Oops. I mean, “it.” It is only a talking machine. At any rate, I’m not humanizing her; I’m humanizing us. Who wants to live in a house with people barking orders?

But I’m not going to say it isn’t weird. Even though I know, from watching Battlestar Galactica, that things aren’t always going to be the same between us and these stupid robots.

I Googled the etymology of the word “please.” It is a shortened version of the term, “if it pleases you.” Possibly from the French, S’il vous plaît.

Filmmaker, writer, photographer born in Guatemala, raised in Los Angeles, and now living near Philadelphia. Listed in IMDB and Wikipedia as Roberto A. Quezada

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store