Should we be polite with our AI machines?

The short answer is no. You don’t have to say, “I’m sorry to bother you” to your iPhone before unlocking it, just like you wouldn’t have to excuse yourself to a dog before you go to the restroom, and even less if it were a sad cactus in your home office. The long answer however, reveals something incredibly unique about our human nature and civilization itself.

I was mindlessly scrolling through my Twitter feed as the social media overlord has instructed me to do, when I came across Chaim Gartenberg’s article on The Verge that debated whether we should say “thank you” or “please” to our AI gadgets.

My first instinct was to think this ridiculous; but then I started remembering all those times I would say “thank you” to travel website chatbots, Siri, Cortana and God knows how many more AI devices out there.

Like Chaim, I’m only polite as a habit. But then it got me wondering: as AI improves should we start being actually polite with our machines? There’s already a religion dedicated to it (founded by ex-Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski), does that mean we’ll all have to pay our respects to these super-smart machines in a not-so-distant-future?

Just so we’re all on the same page, Politeness comes from the latin word politus, meaning refined, elegant. Right from this definition, we can sense something different about politeness in people vs machines. You can certainly program a chatbot to be polite (I do). But that’s all the AI does: it acts on the parameters from which it has been programmed. I myself have to make an effort to be polite —I can forget, be lazy or simply not want to. A sufficiently advanced AI could observe how people behave with one another and emulate that behavior. Thus it would be learning to be polite from “experience.” With the addition of reinforced learning, it could know with whom to be polite and how to polite to be, depending on the person with whom it’s interacting with.

But could the AI actually learn politeness? Can it come to the conclusion that it should behave with reverence towards a person?

I don’t think so.

Being polite with someone else marks the person by distinguishing him/her with status. More than status however, it sets the person apart from the unconscious savagery of humanity and instead lifts the person into the realm of civilization. Voltaire erred in believing that, left to his original, uncivilized state, man would flourish and evil would dissipate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Leave a man to his “natural state” and he will rape, steal and kill his way into survival. The very fact that humanity developed civilization was to escape from this inner savagery. By being polite, we do the opposite: we give reverence to the other person, show a civilized fear, acknowledge their dignity. To have an artificial intelligence come to the understanding that a person has God-given rights, with an infinite value that cannot be grasped, is impossible.

Program your AI’s however you’d like; interact with the machines however you deem; but don’t expect that the machine will behave just like you, because it is not you. It’s a machine.

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