Why we should be kind to Siri and Alexa

Be nice to Alexa, she's learning from you.
Photo: Amazon

It can be fun to be mean to our digital helpers. “Alexa, please go away.” “Siri, stop being so stupid.” “That’s why your dad left you, Alexa.” And so on. Of course, we don’t mean these things. We either say them flippantly or off the cuff. But are Alexa and Siri picking up on our nasty conversational habits? Moreover, could our sarcastic interactions with intelligent personal assistance mean trouble on the horizon?

Machine Learning Is Progressing Quickly

It may be tempting to lash out at Alexa and Siri because they are disembodied robot voices that play music for us. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t picking up on our speech patterns. We increasingly use artificial intelligence (AI) to interpret our language and communication nuances, for better or worse.

Take for instance Microsoft’s disastrous chatbot, Tay. While Microsoft planned for Tay to stroll into Twitter and start conversing with cool teens, the AI quickly became an alt-right convert. After a few hours on Twitter, Tay began talking like a neo-Nazi, denying the Holocaust and posting racist garbage.

Microsoft quickly shuttered Tay, but the point is that these programs are fickle. We may not know exactly how much they are picking up from us, and how much influence we can exert over them. The same goes for Siri and Alexa. We should be aware of how we speak around bots. They could venture down a path that is detrimental for users and the wider world.

It’s Probably Better to be Polite

At the end of the day, it probably doesn’t hurt to be kinder to our software agents. In the bickering, whiny maw that is the internet and social media, kindness can be hard to come by.

Since AI programs have to spend most of their time on the web to function, they could benefit from a more positive influence. Along with simply being polite to your voice-activated assistants, researchers have come up with novel ways to ensure that Alexa doesn’t grow up to be a T-1000.

Some have suggested having AI read fiction to learn humanity’s core values and understand concepts such as good and evil. Going even further, reading stories could infuse machines with culture. Instilling these principles in the bots now could prevent them from acting amorally in the future.

Our AI-powered voice-activated assistants are only going to get smarter. It’s inevitable that they will pick up more and more of our everyday communication styles and language. So next time you’re talking to Siri, say the magic word, please?