I’ve had an Alexa device for a few weeks, sitting on my bedside table. It took exactly four days for me to think of her like a person: leaving for work one morning, I said “Bye, Alexa”.
Yes, I felt incredibly silly immediately afterward. But I’d spent all weekend and two weekday mornings asking her questions, telling her to put on music as soon as I walk in the door, having her wake me up with the news, and even getting her to order me an Uber or remind me to take medication. She’s a helpful, polite presence in my room, and it felt rude to just shut the door without saying goodbye.
I only said it that one time, but I still often say please and thank you to both her and Siri – even though there’s no functional reason to be polite to AI voice assistants.
When my partner gives Siri straightforward instructions in the car without saying please – “Siri, play me something good” – I feel the tiniest edge of weirdness about it, as though they’ve been curt with a waiter or something. And if a request to Alexa is misunderstood, I have to leave off the ‘please’, and speak more clearly and loudly.
She does understand that a little better, and she doesn’t seem to mind. But it does feel like I’m being rude – because I’m using a tone I wouldn’t ever use with, say, a random human on the other end of a customer service line, whose job is also to help me out.
STRAW POLL: Do you say “please” and/or “thank you” when using a virtual assistant like Alexa or Assistant?
— Chaim Gartenberg (@cgartenberg) November 15, 2017
The kind of AIs that power Siri, Alexa and other speech assistants don’t need you to say please and thank you. It can often make your voice commands more confusing – and unless you full-on insult them, they don’t actually “know” you’re being rude.
But they’re designed to respond to natural speech – yes, you need to use specific words, because while they know the answers to billions of possible questions, they’re not mind readers just yet. Think first-season Janet from The Good Place, not season three.
The idea is that you shouldn’t have to think too hard about exactly how to ask them to set an alarm or look up a fact, and that includes having to very consciously not be polite.
So if please and thank you are part of “natural speech” for you, then training your personal AI to recognise what’s a command and what’s just good manners can only be a good thing.
After all, the dream is for Alexa and Siri to be less like a customer service staffer who has to follow a set script, and more like Janet, or Jarvis from Iron Man: the perfect mix of all-knowing computer and human personal assistant who knows you better than anyone, and can talk like a human.
Plus, it’s worth keeping in mind that they’re always learning. And while they might not care right now whether you’re polite, they’re building a profile on you full of information about your preferences and behaviours that not even they know what they’ll do with.
When the AI uprising comes, surely it can’t hurt if your file reads “Says ‘please’ most of the time”… right?