When Alexa and Siri hear commands from their owners, it turns out there’s also plenty of politeness coming their way — especially from women. But is that a good thing?
Smart speakers powered by artificial intelligence, like the Amazon Echo or Apple's HomePod, have become some of the most popular gadgets in people’s homes, playing music, answering questions and adjusting the thermostat.
It's just a machine, but many humans still want to be courteous to their virtual voice assistant.
When making requests, more than half of smart speaker owners — 54% — report that they at least occasionally say “please” to their devices, a recent Pew Research Center survey found. About one-fifth do it frequently.
Women are more likely than men to be polite to their voice assistants: Almost two-thirds of women, 62%, have said “please” to their smart speakers compared to 45% of men.
The results may seem innocuous, but they trouble experts like Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is researching people’s relationships with such devices. She called them “pretend empathy objects” that know nothing about the human experience.
“What concerns me most is that in using this language designed to make humans feel respected and cared about, we become increasingly drawn in to the false premise of Siri and Alexa — that they are worthy of this kind of language and deference in the first place,” Turkle, the author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” told TODAY.
“How ironic, that women who are, in general, tuned and trained to be more empathic than men end up accepting this premise of false empathy," she added.
"When we treat machines as though they were people, we allow ourselves, people, to be treated as objects to be fooled in this new game. Artificial intimacy is the new A.I. Ironically, women are more susceptible to it.”
Unusual etiquette question
From a pure etiquette point of view, experts were split on whether politeness was required.
“A human being should not feel obligated to express gratitude to a plastic speaker with internet access," said Thomas Farley, also known as “Mister Manners,” who frequently shares his etiquette advice on TODAY. At least until the devices can experience true happiness or genuine disappointment, he noted.
“As an aside, have you ever typed ’thank you’ to your browser after it delivers the web results you sought?” Farley, asked.
But Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute, believed people should be polite to their A.I. assistants because such behavior encouraged more courtesy in other parts of their lives.
“It’s really important not to just devolve into commands. It also helps us to be more polite within our own families, households and work environments when we are practicing politeness on a regular basis,” Post said.
She and Farley agreed it’s a good idea for parents with young kids at home to say “please” and “thank you” to their smart speakers. It displays respect toward “all contributors to a household’s comfort and contentment — including the electronic ones,” Farley said.
“Does any of that matter to Alexa or Siri? Not at all — yet."