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Hey Siri, I'm Sorry!

Sunday, 5 December, 2021 - 6:36 pm

 

Question of the Week

Should we say thank you to Siri? Same for Alexa, Google Assistant etc. After asking for directions, or the weather, or a conversion of pounds to kilos, should we say thank you for the answer we hear? What would the Torah say about showing gratitude to artificial intelligence?

Answer

Let’s first define the purpose of saying thank you. 

Some would suggest that it’s just good manners. We say thank you to be polite. Life is more civil when our interactions with others are sprinkled with expressions of etiquette and courteous pleasantries. It’s just nicer that way.

If this is the reason to say thank you, then we should thank our software too. By doing so, we create a sense of decorum and civility. It doesn't matter that the technology has no feelings. Our thank you doesn't have feelings either. It’s just protocol. 

But there is another way of looking at thank you. It is an acknowledgement of choice. When someone does me a favour, they could have chosen not to. Yet they chose to give me their time, energy, attention or resources. So they deserve my gratitude. I appreciate that they chose to share themselves with me, so I say thank you. 

This only applies to a free agent who can choose. An inanimate object does not deserve thanks, because it did not choose anything. We don’t thank the oven for the food, or the car for the ride. We need not thank Siri for her answers. She didn’t choose to share her knowledge with us. We control her. The choice was ours, and she is merely the tool. 

(You may have an obligation to thank the tech giants who made Siri. But you thanked them plenty when you paid for the device. And you continue to thank them by giving them your personal data.)

Now you may ask, is there anything wrong with saying thanks to Siri? Isn’t it at least ingraining a good habit?

No it isn’t. Thanking a robot is the beginning of a very dangerous habit. It is the automation of relationships. And history has taught us how dangerous that can be. 

Adam and Eve knew that G-d was their Creator. But their grandson Enosh invented idol worship, and people started bowing to the sun. Their rationale was that the sun provides us with the light and warmth that makes our food grow and gives us life. We should offer the sun our gratitude for the blessings we receive.

Their mistake, however, was giving credit where no credit was due. The sun has no choice but to shine. Thanking the sun, rather than G-d who created it, was an easy way to avoid a true relationship. The sun does not expect anything of me. G-d does. Idol worship is impersonal and undemanding. It releases you from the obligation to follow a moral code. That’s why it is attractive, and that’s why it is dangerous.

Replacing G-d with an idol undermines our moral responsibility. And treating human inventions like they are humans will undermine our relationships. 

Real people are demanding. They have their own opinions and needs. They can hurt us and be hurt by us. They can bring us joy, and we them. Our actions toward other people matter, our words have impact, our relationships are real. That is because people have free choice. We can't control them. They are free agents. 

Siri doesn’t come with all that baggage. Her offense is not real, her friendliness not genuine, her assistance not by choice. When you humanise Siri by thanking her, you are de-personalising friendship, you are befriending an idol. It is a small step from artificial intelligence to artificial emotion. We don’t want to go there. 

It is wrong to use people, but we can use Siri. And I don’t think we should be thanking her. She is not a she, she is an it. Save your gratitude for the real people in your life, who have done good for you when they could have chosen otherwise.

And by the way, thank you for the question. 

Good Shabbos and Happy Chanukah!
Rabbi Moss

Sources:
Maimonides Laws of Idolatry 1:1
Tzemach Tzedek Derech Mitzvosecha Mitzvas Milah 3

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