Thou Shalt Never Be Polite To Robots

Google and Amazon are trying to force us to speak politely to their AI-driven personal assistants. But giving souls to our technology is a dangerous return to the past.

What a friendly smile.
What a friendly smile.
Gaspard Koenig


PARIS — Google Home, the search giant's personal assistant with which you can engage in basic conversation, has just introduced the "Pretty Please" function. This feature rewards users politeness towards the device, following in the footsteps of Amazon's Alexa personal assistant. Adults will thus be answered in the same courteous tone, while the "magic words' may be set as required of children before their requests are fulfilled.

The goal is to discourage rude behavior as well as to avoid scrambling the learning process of artificial intelligence with all kinds of insults that could boomerang back to users. Google says its decision is based on sociological studies that demonstrate the need to be courteous with robots.

- Please, Google, turn on the oven.

- Thank you for being so kind, Gaspard, I will do it immediately.

But what has become a social imperative represents, in my opinion, a profound epistemological error. Artificial intelligence has neither personality nor consciousness — it suffers neither from the cold nor from insults. Far from reproducing the process of thought or emotion, it merely imitates their results, as computer scientist Jerry Kaplan explains. When Google Assistant answers a question using a search engine or suggests a choice of music, it doesn't follow human reasoning but rather synthesizes the millions of human reasoning processes from which its algorithm derive. It's a complex, sophisticated and undoubtedly useful mechanism, but just a mechanism nonetheless — not an autonomous being endowed with any sense of morality. We don't say "please" to a washing machine anymore than we do to a car or word processing software, do we?

Rather than the vanguard of progress, treating an AI-powered device with politeness is instead a clear sign of regression for our civilization, slipping back into the failings of anthropomorphism. A visit to the Quai Branly Museum in Paris is enough to see how traditional societies were doing their utmost to attribute a soul, power and feelings to inanimate objects (the Polynesians' famous Mana).

It would be paradoxical if technological progress were to make us lose our scientific minds.

It wasn't until the development of experimental science that we started freeing things from our own shadow. The late French philosopher Gaston Bachelard identified, in the forming process of the scientific mind, what he called the "animist obstacle" and defined it as a "belief in the universal character of life."

Will the 21st century regress into the worship of silicon chips, and discussions about the vices and virtues of AI? Are we going to resurrect animal spirits for machines that we have designed and manufactured ourselves? Will the connected house look like a dense forest full of ghosts and mysteries? It would be paradoxical if technological progress were to make us lose our scientific minds.

Far from contributing to harmonious social relations, the logic behind "Pretty Please" thus risks recreating a relationship with the primitive world in which keyboards must be blessed and refrigerators greeted. Moreover, it makes politeness an automatic, standardized and repetitive reflex when its entire value depends on its sincerity. As we're sometimes told when our apologies are too automatic, machine-like, "You don't really mean it!" Robots not only don't deserve politeness, but we must absolutely avoid that politeness becomes robotized.

So, for once, we should ask our children to be discourteous or, even better, completely indifferent to the connected objects that are beginning to surround us. It's not a matter of transforming robots into slaves, as some fear. A slave is a conscious being who is denied any faculty of self-determination, whereas AI is an artificial fiction that we have determined ourselves, and whose learning capacities remain linked to the algorithms that govern it. It's a question of differentiating very clearly, for essential moral reasons, between a subject that is an end in itself and therefore deserves respect and a purely utilitarian object. Robots are neither friends nor enemies, nor angels nor demons. They are instruments. This must be clear if we want to be able to live with them in peace.

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

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"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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