Will robots make us more robotic?

robot dalek

Anyone who has taken public transport in San Francisco will tell you: it is not strange and unusual to encounter the strange and unusual. Every day is one of eyebrow-raising discovery. That said, I surprised myself recently when I became slightly transfixed –and perhaps a little perplexed– listening to someone narrate a text message into their smartphone.

The expressionless and toneless girl carefully articulated each word: “I can’t believe she told you”, she said aloud like a Dalek, “LOL”. How odd it seemed to see someone sat, stoney-faced, proclaiming that they were “laughing out loud” when nothing could be further from the truth.

Now, I have a limited background in acting, and I worked in-and-around politics for several years, so believe me when I say I’ve heard people speak robotically without any conviction or inflection before. But those people were reading scripts, or trying to remember their lines-to-take, or trotting out meaningless straplines. They weren’t expressing their own thoughts and feelings to a friend.

Then yesterday, I stumbled across this blog about the evolution of interactions in the age of AI. In a rather sweet anecdote, the author talks about ordering his Alexa to “turn off the lights” and his young son questioning his manners and the absence of “please”. He goes on to ponder the future and how we might incorporate manners and niceties when instructing our digital assistants, lest we inhibit their range by limiting the vocabulary we use with them.

My thoughts went elsewhere. Though AI is developing to understand our expressions and feelings, it feels like we also have some evolving to do before we become used to addressing artificial systems as we would other humans. Moreover, with voice instructions and narrated text, there seems little need for sincerity or emotion. The text itself is either directly indicative – or free – of sentiment.

Where I’m getting to is this: might we humans begin to develop specific a type of robotic tone exclusively for non-social instructive language? For Alexa and co.? We already have a tone and style we reserve for babies, pets and (sometimes) older relatives. Will a whole new style of monosyllabic speech emerge for the purposes of closing garage doors, sending text messages, ordering plane tickets and browsing TV channels? A sort of anti-baby talk?

It’s fun to speculate about these things, and I’m certainly no linguist, but it’s difficult to see that the voice-activated future we’re promised wouldn’t have some implications for modes of speech. Will we flatten our language, or to the contrary, become hyper-expressive? We’re yet to find out, but we can only hope that the beautiful languages of the world aren’t somehow roboticized as we adapt to hands-free technologies and AI assistants.

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