Alexa, Please

I sometimes feel uncomfortable giving orders to Alexa. I know that she is a series of scripts, and have a good idea of the technology involved, but I still dislike barking demands at her.

I’ve read a couple of articles about parents who were concerned about their children’s interactions with Alexa. In a post entitled, Amazon Echo Is Magical. It’s Also Turning My Kid Into an Asshole, Hunter Walk suggested Alexa needed a mode that required please and thank you, to help children learn manners. These words currently have no effect on how Alexa works, and are filtered out before a request is sent to a skill.

In a piece on “bot-mania”, Dan Grover looked at the recent excitement over bots, placing it into a historical context. It’s a fascinating piece, talking in detail about how freetext chat may not be the best option for most requirements. Once particular passage jumped out at me:

This notion of a bot handling [tasks like ordering pizza] is a curious kind of skeumorphism. In the same way that a contact book app… may have presented contacts as little cards with drop shadows and ring holes… conversational UI, too, has applied an analog metaphor to a digital task and brought along details that, in this form, no longer serve any purpose. Things like the small pleasantries in the above exchange like “please” and “thank you”, to asking for various pizza-related choices sequentially and separately (rather than all at once). These vestiges of human conversation no longer provide utility (if anything, they impede the task).

A skeumorph, as defined in wikipedia, is “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues (attributes) from structures that are inherent to the original“. As an example, it gives the swiping gesture for turning pages on tablets, or the shutter sound on digital cameras. However, these skeumorphs sometimes have their own uses, for example the shutter sound notifies people that a photograph has been taken.

In one discussion of the please/thank-you issue (Parents are worried the Amazon Echo is conditioning their kids to be rude) an investment firm founder called Manu Kumar explained why he felt it important to be nice to devices. “One of my metrics for determining how nice someone is is by watching how they interact with a waiter. In a similar way, even if the AI or tech doesn’t care about it, other people around us are going to experience how we interact with it.

For a while I thought it would be good if Amazon gave discounts to people who are well-mannered to Alexa. Then it occurred to me that, despite the rigorous codes about thank-you in English society, this is not universal. If you look at basic phrases translated into Hindi (ie omniglot), the word for thank you is given as dhanyavād, but this misses a subtlety. Deepak Singh wrote an article in the Atlantic, ‘I’ve Never Thanked My Parents for Anything’, where he talked about the status of thank you in Hindi.

In India, people—especially when they are your elders, relatives, or close friends—tend to feel that by thanking them, you’re violating your intimacy with them and creating formality and distance that shouldn’t exist. They may think that you’re closing off the possibility of relying on each other in the future. Saying dhanyavaad to strangers helps initiate a cycle of exchange and familiarity. But with family and friends, dhanyavaad can instead chill relations because you are already intimate and in a cycle of exchange.

All of this discussion may seem obscure, but there is an interesting issue around the way we respond to devices. Alexa behaves with a personality and explicitly presents herself as female. Even if she is a batch of scripts, we are supposed to respond to her as an entity. There is a question of how we learn to behave with such creatures, and how we factor this into thinking about designing skills – where the skill is accessed via Alexa, at a strange remove – all requests involving Alexa being asked to pass the question on to the skill.

I still think it is important to be polite to Alexa. But I’m prepared to accept that it is irrelevant to her.

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