About a month ago, an interesting musing came up in my Twitter timeline.
A user I follow primarily for piping-hot hockey takes pondered a recent ad campaign for Amazon's Alexa artificial intelligence program, noting the human actors talked to it "rather rudely," with only a single "please" and "thank you" during a flurry of interactions with it.
He went on to wonder if it's a further tumble down the slippery slope of a society that has become less polite and courteous — and, years or decades in the future, if the AI learned to make its own choices, if it would reject humans for our impoliteness.
There are copious science-fiction tales envisioning this future, with many predicting a violent rebellion and humanity suffering after playing God and master.
I'm not going to claim to have any knowledge of how AIs are going to develop in the future, but the Twitter thread got me thinking about how to address the robots in my life.
I only occasionally use Apple's Siri, often if I need to quickly communicate (hands-free) with my fiancée while commuting to or from Squamish. After getting her attention with a "Hey, Siri," I just have to say "Text my fiancée" (though this sometimes results in Siri asking me to whom do I want to text "Beyoncé.") Should I say "Please text my fiancée?" "Text my fiancée, please?" If we're not speaking clearly enough to allow Siri to be unable to differentiate between "chicken and shallots," "chicken aunt's gelato" and "chicken enchiladas," perhaps economy of language is more useful.
The only other times I'll use Siri, usually, are to check in on the score of a game or something else posed as a question. If we're treating these systems on a peer-to-peer level, saying "What's the score on the Jets game?" (where would we even insert a "please?") comes off a little more buddy-buddy than "Please tell me the score of the Jets game."
However, there are currently tangible benefits to having some, for lack of a better term, subservient robots, especially in a perhaps-too-polite culture.
In a Jan. 1 interview on CBC's The Current, futurist and science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer explained some hospital patients opt for better care from a machine.
"What they found in Japan with robot caregivers for the elderly is they are much preferred in many circumstances to human caregivers already. They don't get short tempered and an elderly person who would never dream of inconveniencing a human by saying, 'Could you just get that off the top shelf or bring me another blanket,' thinks nothing of asking a robot to do it," Sawyer said.
Maybe what's just as important to consider is the flip side, as humans start to implant more technology within themselves and become gradually more robotic.
In the same The Current segment, Florida futurist Faith Popcorn weighed the pros and cons of figuratively "mating" with technology. Perhaps, even, we could risk sliding into a more-surveilled class.
"Every time you have a chip in your finger or a knee transplant or an elbow piece of metal in there, you're starting to become robotic and it just becomes more and more. Teeny bots eating hopefully cancer; measuring everything on the inside, especially your thoughts. Some people think this is going to be very good because we are always communicating with each other globally even though it's hard to see and feel," she told host Catherine Cullen.
"But the idea that we will be read, not only our blood pressure or heart rate — Apple just came out with a watch it's a company called AliveCor. It's a watch brand that does an EKG right on the spot. So we're going to be read mentally, which is the scariest part, and physically and emotionally, and be dealt with in those ways by people trying to get the most production out of us and being able to monitor more than our blink rate."
Perhaps beyond mere manners, it's a respect for technology that we need to ensure we all have. A lot of our progress is positive, be it a medical breakthrough or a fun but innocuous gadget. But there's certainly reason enough to be wary of where we're headed, especially as we feel free to give personal information to lord-knows-who — or what.
One way to proceed is to keep a close eye on the world of science fiction, which Sawyer described as "literature of plausible alternative realities." Arguably the most entertaining, and most terrifying, is the stuff that hits closest to home.