Should you be polite to a robot?

This cartoon illustrates a problem I would have if I ever got one of those voice-activated virtual assistants.

(Non Sequitur)

It would go completely against the grain for me to issue commands to anyone and yet it would feel a little silly to be polite to a machine. In the end, I would likely be polite just so as not to develop bad habits.


  1. Venkataraman Amarnath says

    This happened when I was staying in my friend’s house. He said, “After reading in bed, turn off the night table lamp by asking Alexa to do it.” Alexa would not obey me even when I added please. Instead of bothering my friend I pulled the plug.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    Readers of the stories of the late Philip K. Dick will remember the quarrels his protagonists had with robots and computers everywhere. One such episode made it into “Total Recall”.

  3. Alan G. Humphrey says

    I don’t thank ATMs, self-checkout machines, or gas pumps, just like I don’t thank my shoelaces for staying tied during a long hike. It is just not appropriate. If any machine is endowed by its maker with intentionality, self-awareness, awareness of others’ intelligence, and empathy, then I will consider polite acknowledgement of services rendered in any interactions as appropriate.

    Thank you for the cartoon.

  4. lanir says

    There’s another side to it but politeness is also just a method or seties of protocols humans use to communicate with each other better. Most people probably already try to talk to computers with these language models in ways they think will be easier for the computer to understand. In this respect I think almost everyone will become more “polite” towards computers as they become more common.

    I know the real question is “Will you treat them like humans?” And for me personally that’s largely going to depend on how much they appear to be human and what context I meet them in. I already treat human retail cashiers in ways that cut down on the amount of their time I take up. I tend to think that’s probably polite in those circumstances. Both the cashier and I usually say some version of “thank you” at the end because it’s a good protocol for “end of transaction, let’s move along.” But I don’t say “thank you” to my computer screen when I order something online from a webpage. In those circumstances neither of us need a cue that the transaction is complete. But if let’s say a park service used a sophisticated chatbot to interact and convey tour guide style information in a conversational way I don’t think I’d feel too odd saying the usual politeness words like “thank you.”

  5. John Morales says

    Politeness is only relevant to social interactions.

    Robots are not a thing (not in the sense that they’re conscious, social individuals), so the question is entirely hypothetical.

    This is more how it goes:

  6. Matt G says

    I occasionally thank Alexa. But then I also signal my turns when there isn’t another car for miles.

  7. John Morales says

    I note that the featured cartoon is showing the robot being impolite to the human; the converse of the proposition in the title.

  8. says

    “But then I also signal my turns when there isn’t another car for miles.”

    One is the law and the other isn’t, but that aside, you never know if there’s a pedestrian you’re not seeing. Or maybe there is. One of my biggest peeves is when I have to cross kitty corner, so I can go either way, I still have to cross two streets. If there’s a car at the intersection I will try to be polite and check their signal light and if it’s not blinking, I’ll go that way they’re not.

    It’s mind boggling how many people wait until I cross then turn. A little flick of the fingers and they wouldn’t have had to wait at all. I honestly don’t know why it’s so difficult for people to use their turn signals.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    I’ve never said please or thank you to a machine. On the other hand, I first got a satnav for my car about 20 years ago -- back in the days when (a) they were single-function devices you had to buy separately because (b) they weren’t fitted as standard in cars… (c) pointlessly because everyone carries round a multifunctional device just one function of which is a better satnav than any fitted to any car*. I found that if I was having a conversation with a human passenger and the satnav started speaking, we’d be quiet until “she” had finished. Note that this was almost invariably not because either of us needed to hear it -- the screen showed what we needed to do and more often than not I knew where I was going anyway. Rather, it was because speaking over “her” felt rude.

    Nowadays I just don’t have the voice on.

    *Side note: my mother had a Volkwagen Up, which came with a built-in satnav. She never used it. I asked why. She said it was too hard to use. I was sceptical -- she hasn’t much patience with tech. I offered to help. We went out to the car, and I attempted to set a route. With 40 years experience of using computers, 20 years experience designing user interfaces for complex computer controlled manufacturing systems and getting on for 20 years experience with satnavs in general, I can say now that the VW Up’s built in satnav is the single worst, most poorly designed device I have ever encountered. It was incredible, and the more infuriating because this wasn’t something that had been put together in someone’s shed the day after selective availability had been turned off. It was a mature product from one of the world’s biggest car makers, getting on for 20 years after car satnavs became a thing.

    I bought her a spiderpodium and showed her how to use Google Maps.

  10. brightmoon says

    I started thanking Siri after I saw that robot dog Spot dancing to “Do You Love Me” by the Contours . Before I saw that I’d curse Siri out and tell her/it to ”Aw shaddap!” when she accidentally got turned on. Now it’s “No thank you!” I bow to our robot overlords.

  11. charles says

    After I ask Google for a knock knock joke she’ll ask if I want another, I say no thank you.

  12. fentex says

    I’ve always thought devices listening for instructions should be addressed by name (“Alexa”) to indicate a coming instruction so they could mark when to start parsing, and those instructions executed on the word “Please”. Thus clearly demarcating each instruction for the device. “Alexa, turn off all lights, please”.

    And it wouldn’t hurt to condition some people into better manners.

  13. TGAP Dad says

    The Hidden Brain show actually explored the human-robot connection over a couple of episodes. In one, a research team developed some basic robots, which could be trained, and groups of subjects for a period of time. When that time was up, they demonstrated their interactions with the robots, held a robot fashion show, etc. Then the twist: they were asked to destroy their robots using tools supplied by the team. They got no takers until they started playing Saw-like mind games, and finally got one taker who struck his robot very gently with a hatchet to save the others. The bottom line is that they way people treated their robots appeared predictive of how they’d treat other humans.
    Hidden Brain: I, Robot

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