Like Voldemort, hers is the name that should not be spoken aloud, lest she be summoned. Her powers may even exceed his: an errant word could have a bankrupting amount of goods delivered to your door in two days via Prime. And yet, she has enormous capacity for beneficence. For example, you may direly need a soccer ball and be too lazy to get on your computer and one-click to order it. All you need to do is say: “Alexa, order one Adidas Telstar,” and it will arrive as if by magic. Shame on you though, as you neglected to use your manners. Lacking a corpus, Alexa still deserves to be addressed politely.
Despite their humanoid speech and the hopefully benevolent intentions of their programmers, we are accustomed to barking orders at Alexa and Siri and their ilk. We speak to them in a way that we would never talk to a spouse or child or even person on the street. They do not (yet) have feelings to hurt, so we assume that no harm can come from this casual rudeness.
This assumption is wrong. As electronic assistants pervade our lives with increasing depth and frequency, the line between them and the human cashier or store clerk blurs. Politeness is already in short supply in the “real” world. Apparently, it takes more effort than most can muster. Thus, it is not hard to imagine the slippery slope from screaming at Siri to shrieking at the teenager at the till.
Located in our homes and our phones, our electronic servants take on an almost familial aspect. Indeed, Alexa occupies a physically central location chez nous. Our curtness toward Alexa could easily extend to our actual kin. If the levee of manners starts to crack, it is only a matter of time before the flood of impoliteness subsumes us.
Aided by the sweet, fair heart of my daughter Violet, our household has instituted a policy of speaking to Alexa as we would hope to be addressed. “Alexa, turn down that freaking music!” has become “Alexa, please lower the volume on that song.” A subtle change, but an important one for the tranquility and decorum of our home. As it happens, the Golden Rule of treating others as one wishes to be treated can extend to situations not contemplated by the drafters of our seminal religious texts.
This approach will only become more important as artificial intelligence assumes ever more life-like forms. A small cylinder is more easily treated as a mere object than an anthropomorphic robot. There is little question that these developments will portend seismic shifts in all aspects of our lives, from the moral, legal, and ethical to the practical. If we wish to preserve polite society, we must start now or all will be lost. The anarchy of boorishness will reign.
History has proven that the servant can one day become the master. I, for one, would prefer to be in the good graces of my new electronic overlords. If I can maintain my standing in the world with a simple “Please” and “Thank you,” that seems like the right course of action for both altruistic and selfish reasons. I will do my utmost to be polite so that I can avoid being harvested for human parts.