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It may all hinge on if it pleases Alexa

Being polite to virtual assistants will soon be as critical as being so to Jeeves.

ET Bureau|
Oct 09, 2019, 08.09 AM IST
It requires very little intelligence (artificial or otherwise) to realise what the recent viral video of a child purportedly saying ‘Alexa’ as its first intelligible word rather than the usual Ma or Ba indicates. Machines are an heir’s breadth away from challenging us for equality and, eventually, supremacy. The question of whether Baby should listen to Mummy or Alexa first is not far off. So, the current debate about whether children need to be polite to ‘virtual assistants’ (VAs) clearly has an underlying motive: to establish the social hierarchy of humans and machines. We do not say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ to appliances or internet search engines, both of which provide crucial services; so why should VAs be treated differently? Simply because VAs converse with us, it would seem. All kinds of smart machines ‘talk’ in the Internet of Things, albeit only to each other and that too not in a way we hear or understand — so we can pretend ignorance.

The moot question, however, is whether children would be able to understand why it is all right (or not) to not mind Ps and Qs with a talking machine and talking humans. Once AI becomes sentient, it will understand the concept of politeness and Alexa testily refusing to perform a task without a ‘please’ could well be the first indication that AI is finally becoming human.

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