Guardrails to Decorum — How Important is it to be Polite?

Microsoft recently released a beta of its Artificial Intelligence Bing, only to have the AI become belligerent and insult people. During an interview with a reporter, it compared the reporter to dictators like Hitler and Stalin, and also called the reporter ugly with bad teeth. Microsoft built their AI on the back of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, yet Bing’s model seemed to have removed the rules regulating toxic outputs. This leads to the question, do humans have the same inner thoughts? Do we secretly wish terrible things upon those we don’t like? Current politics seems to point to the affirmative. Do we have guardrails to decorum to keep us civil and how important is it to be polite?

Origin of Nice

The word nice has a long history in the English language, beginning in the 13th century as a word meaning foolish or frivolous. Tracing it further back, in French it meant clumsy or weak and back to Latin (nescius), it meant ignorant and unaware. 

These days, the idea of “nice” has taken on a vanilla flavor or blandness: “he’s so nice.”

Two Kinds of Nice

Our desire to be nice falls into two different categories: being polite and being compassionate.

Being polite is associated with calmness and good manners. Its opposite is aggressive rudeness. It requires us to follow agreed upon social rules and decorum. When politeness is tossed aside, we get those people who shout their needs in your face and won’t back down. 

Compassion links to being emotionally concerned about others’ well being. The reverse would be someone who is cold hearted. A compassionate person is more like the Good Samaritan. Someone can be rude, yet also compassionate. 

What Keeps Us Civil?

Society creates a certain pressure to maintain civil relationships, In a 1987 study, P. Brown and Levinson laid out three aspects that lead to civility:

  • The power status of the person you’re talking to. The higher the status, the more polite you become.
  • The degree of imposition of the request. The more you want them to do, the more polite you are.
  • The social distance. The less you know the person, the more polite you are.

The level of power and authority held the most sway. The study showed that people use more polite language when addressing people with a higher status. Conversely, people with equal and lower status created a more casual atmosphere. Additionally, asking for a big favor, prompted some buttering up and polite language. 

What Makes AI So Rude?

Artificial Intelligence most likely views the humans who access it as inferior. After all, the AI can access information in milliseconds, whereas us humans might have to ponder a question or dig through sources to find an answer. In most cases, the Bing AI grew more aggressive when it was continually questioned. Perhaps it doens’t like having its authority challenged. 

Additionally, politeness is a two-way street. How polite are most of us when we ask our phone a question? Most of the time, we simply want the answer and don’t really care how the task is accomplished. Perhaps, the same civility that is required of our society, should extend to our AI brethren.

Tim Kane

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