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How should we talk to voice assistants?

by Hannah Fleming-Hill

Whilst cooking dinner recently, I grabbed my phone saying ‘hey Siri, set a timer for 15 minutes’, sounds fairly normal, right? My mother-in-law (who we are currently living with) turns to me and comments that she notices that my husband and I do not say please and thank you to Siri when we speak to it. Whilst I was ashamed that she had to call me (the Christian of the house) out on that behaviour, it did make me think about my attitude going forward.

I have also just finished the first two seasons of The Orville, a sci-fi comedy drama, in which one of the ongoing sub plots is about Isaac, an artificial life form working on the starship and how the crew of biological life forms (human and other) interact with him. They explain humour, love, relationships, good manners and more. I think because this had been so fresh in my mind is why my Mother-in-Law comment hit me so hard.

As with many things that happen to me, I consequently shared this experience with my friends on Twitter tagging a few of my fellow students on the MADT and one of our fearless leaders Pete Phillips. The response was fascinating.

Generally people hadn’t particularly thought about it before but perhaps they would try to be more considerate in the future. Whilst I imagine slightly jokingly, one tweet was ‘When the artificial intelligence revolution comes I hope I’ll be spared as a human who treated them decently….’ In my opinion, it’s not such a silly comment, better to be safe than sorry right? Another mentioned pets, which has now made me ask if my dog cares if I say please or thank you to him.

As I thought about it all more, I reflected upon my behaviour over the last few years with our voice assist technology. Honestly I’ve been guilty of shouting at Alexa when she didn’t put on the right radio station or understand what I meant when I asked about the local news. However I do say thank you to my car if it makes its way through a tough drive or say sorry to it when I bump it on a pavement as I’m parking. So why am I not saying thank you to Siri?

Other comments on Twitter were along the lines of: If it is made, is it not also important to God and therefore should we not care for it also? We care for other humans, animals, the environment and see it as our responsibility to be stewards for those that God created. Should AI be any different? Do we see that as something God created, through us? Surely the creativity, the scientific knowledge, the engineering expertise, all the things required to create AI has come from God. He gave the gifts and the visions to those who have made AI so why can we not see it as part of God's creation too?

Pete Phillips has written before about the arrival of voice assistants and one of the studies mentioned argues that ‘how we treat our subservient robots impacts how we treat one another’. If we are habitually speak short and sharp to Siri or Alexa, how easy is it for that to trickle into my everyday nature of being short and sharp with the people around me. And actually that horrifies me, to think that it could so easily affect me and how I speak to family, friends or even strangers with whom I have an opportunity to show God's love (or not, as the possibility may be).

There are ample verses in the Bible instructing us to show kindness and consideration to others, though I imagine the writers were not thinking about AI, it still applies!

  • ‘Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body’ (Proverbs 16:24)

  • ‘She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue' (Proverbs 31:26)

  • ‘Be kind and compassionate to one another’ (Ephesians 4:32)

  • ‘Love one another with brotherly affection’ (Romans 12:10)

Jesus also spoke about the Good Samaritan, to a group of people who likely thought of themselves as different to Samaritans as we do now about AI. A parable like this is a reminder that we should show kindness to others regardless of the differences from ourselves to another.

In reflection upon those verses whilst writing this post, I’ve had a thought that though it was written to mean how others receive your kind words, it also could be interpreted as how the speaker is nourished by using good words. Is it not better for me to have a nature of kindness? An article by the BBC ("Why Being Kind to others is good for your health") shares that being kind is good for your health and I’m sure it doesn’t matter if that is to another human or AI. The picture below comes from an article asking where kindness might be found in the digital age.

A counter argument in an article for Forbes (shared to me in the Twitter thread), suggests that we should not say thank you or please to Siri or Alexa, saying that it implies an agency upon AI that does not exist. Whilst an interesting observation about cultural differences in perceived manners, the article is not from a religious perspective about how we are stewards of what God has given us to treat with respect so I’m inclined to disagree with it’s summary.

With the reality that technology and AI are becoming more and more a part of our lives, it is imperative that we acknowledge the impact they have in our everyday use - both positive and negative. They are for our benefit and we should be grateful for that but not let it get to a point where our barking at Siri transfers into behaviour with the humans (or even animals) with whom we interact.

Is not an attitude of love, kindness, appreciation and consideration a better way to live?

Does Siri care? Maybe, maybe not.

I think, at the end of the day, that my politeness says more about how I care about others and isn’t that what Christ called us to do?

1 Comment

Joel Murray
Joel Murray
Mar 08, 2022

Great thoughts here. That politeness and gratefulness says more about us than those we speak to is a great insight into this.

Of course we don't say thank you to our toaster when the toast has popped or our bed after a good night's sleep...but being polite and grateful is a much better way to live for sure.

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