Hey Siri, what colour are farts?
Digital assistants encourage us - and our kids - to be rude
"Hey Siri, who’s the greatest?”
“Hey Siri, can you eat food in heaven?”
“Hey Siri, what colour are farts?”
One thing I’ll say for voice‑recognition gadgets: they bring out the philosopher in every child.
I have had to turn off the Siri function on my phone, because my children kept kidnapping it for the purposes of dialectical debate. I would find them huddled together behind a curtain, firing off thorny questions – “Who does Mummy love most?” “Do you have a smelly bum?” – and then collapsing with laughter at Siri’s tactful non sequiturs.The strange thing is, I felt a bit sorry for Siri. Mere algorithm she may be, but it seemed wrong to let them harangue her with coarse or impossible conundrums and then mock her confusion. So what if she has no feelings to hurt? Good manners are acquired through constant repetition and the nurturing of empathy. An endlessly forgiving robot slave seems a poor subject to practice on.
Turns out I was right to be worried. A report published last week warned that “digital assistants” such as Siri and Alexa may be fostering a generation of oiks. An extraordinary 42% of children aged between nine and 16 now use voice-recognition gadgets at home, most often asking for (or rather, curtly demanding) help with homework. Since these gadgets do not require a “please” or “thank you”, they encourage a brusquer style of communication, which is likely to carry over into human interactions.The report’s author suggests that parents should lead by example, treating our devices with scrupulous respect. But why should parents always have to rectify the mistakes of tech companies?
It would surely be the easiest thing in the world to tweak Siri’s algorithm so that she becomes a stickler for etiquette. Why not programme her so that every request has to be activated by a “please”, and followed up with an effusive “thank you”?
Perhaps there could be a points-based reward system for every supplementary pleasantry you throw her way: say, five points for an “If you don’t mind”, and 10 for an ingratiating, “Ooh, you are kind”. It would be like the Fitbit of social intercourse, encouraging us to flex our increasingly underused civilities.
It’s baffling, really, that these gadgets weren’t programmed from the start to encourage basic courtesy. We all know by now how quickly and comprehensively new technology can alter human behaviour, for both good and ill. There is growing evidence that smartphones themselves (never mind what’s on them) are damaging our ability to communicate.
Children who grow up staring at screens – or at adults staring at screens – don’t get enough practice at reading facial expressions and body language. Social media has made political discourse more tribal and embittered; there is growing evidence that online porn has led to a rise in violent sexual relationships.
Some of these changes may have been hard to predict, and harder still to prevent. But it takes a really determined myopic not to spot the link between new technology and the demise of civility. The visionaries who created Siri and Alexa have shown, once again, that Silicon Valley has woefully short sight.
– © The Daily Telegraph