The problem is, the more intelligent tech becomes the more it feels like an affront when it goes wrong. It’s difficult to lose your rag at a can-opener that isn’t working. But, the more intuitive the tech, the more likely we are to have an emotional response to its shortcomings: it doesn’t just fail us — it betrays us. That’s why I once saw a man on the bus who, after his smartphone had cut him off one too many times, gripped the thing like he was trying to throttle it and whispered: “You are ruining my life!”
The way we treat AI is now a political issue. Last year, the European Parliament backed proposals to give robots “electronic personhood” status. Just because AI has the emotional intelligence of a banana at the moment, its supporters argued, doesn’t mean it will have in 30 years’ time.
The debate flared up again in April, when 156 AI experts co-signed a letter telling the European Commission it was a really bad idea.
It’s not just a bad idea, it’s a cynical one. When I asked an AI academic what she made of the debate, she said the push for “personhood” is just a way for corporations to absolve themselves of responsibility if their robot goes off the rails. Or, in the case of automated cars, off the road.
Nevertheless, I’m going to take more care talking to my household tech — my smartphone, the Google Home assistant, Alexa — not least because they’re a bunch of little spies, armed with my internet search history, but also because being rude to something with even the merest reflection of humanity coarsens everyday life. Because being vile to Alexa, while fun in the moment, is not the same thing as slamming your laptop shut — or smashing your kids’ iPad screens — there’s something about the performative, collaborative aspect of being in conversation that makes it more socially corrosive.
Take what Martha Lane Fox said at the FT Weekend Festival earlier this month: while it’s perhaps a side-effect of the male-dominated tech scene that all these AI personalities are female, what damage this does to children who are casually taught to lose it — without rebuke — at the woman’s voice in the corner, is anyone’s guess.
So, from tomorrow, I’m going to start extending olive branches. Besides, when the AI takeover finally happens, and our robot overlords start using our soft, pulpy bodies as batteries, maybe they’ll look on me more favourably.