Table Rules

Parents spend an inordinate amount of time telling their children the same rules over and over in an effort to help them be better people in the long run. Just sitting at the dinner table for a meal involves a myriad of protocols that most of us rarely think about unless someone around us is breaking from convention in a social setting, be it formal or otherwise. With repetition and the occasional bit of discipline, children learn how to compose themselves when at a table with different groups of people. Everybody knows this is how we learn how to act in polite company, but what would these rules look like if they were written out for an android?

Robotics technology has seen a remarkable amount of progress over the last quarter century as we continue to build better motors, faster processors, and adaptable machines. Eventually we'll reach a point where it will become feasible to build an android that is the size and shape of "the ideal person"1, most likely with the bulk of its brainpower hosted by a giant organisation or -- ideally -- a local server buried in a closet with a great deal of processing power. When the time comes for people to invite these machinations into their home2, someone will need to sit down and write out all the rules that must be followed when sitting at the table and pretending to eat a meal.

  • wash your hands before sitting at the table
  • wear underwear, pants, and a shirt at the table
  • sit up straight
  • don't put your elbows on the table
  • eat pasta with a fork, not your fingers
  • eat pizza with your fingers, not a fork3
  • when you cough, take a sip of water or tea
  • do not raise your leg to have your knee above the table
  • eat with your mouth closed
  • ask for additional food or toppings with "please"
  • thank people for the meal
  • compliment the chef, offering specific praise for at least one dish
  • do not sing while eating
  • swallow the food before talking
  • do not stuff food into your mouth
  • don't slurp liquid
  • don't lick the plate
  • don't throw food
  • do not use a straw to drink your soup
  • french fries do not belong in your nostrils
  • if you must take food out of your mouth, gently spit it into a tissue, then wrap the tissue so nobody else sees the mess
  • if you must pass gas, excuse yourself and leave the table to go to an adjacent room, then return after waiting at least 30 seconds4

The list goes on and on and on. I've had to tell my son every one of these rules at least once this week, and many of them at least once per meal. A machine with some degree of autonomy, however, would only need to have the list written once and put into a weighted scale so that, when the situation requires it, the rule can be overridden5. When sitting at a table with young children, for example, maybe slurping soup or putting food up a nose would be a means of silly entertainment to keep the kids occupied while a table of adults try to have a meal in relative peace. When sitting at a table with senior family members, such as a grandmother and grandfather, then the rules can tighten up and be followed to the letter. These are all things we teach our children to do, and these are all things that we ourselves do when not eating in isolation, so it makes sense that an android with situational awareness will understand the environment it's in to determine how best to follow the protocols of the dinner table.

Mind you, this is just the dinner table. Rules would have to be added if an android finds itself at a five-star restaurant in Dubai or a dumpy fast-food joint next to a forgotten truck stop on an abandoned highway. Then there's the hassle of ensuring that so many of the other rules we unconsciously follow are programmed into the system.

When is it appropriate to speak at a normal volume? When should we whisper? Is it okay to talk during a movie? Can an android spontaneously break into song like a character in Glee?

What etiquette will be followed regarding clothing? Which rituals are observed at formal events such as weddings, funerals, or bar-mitzvah? It's okay to make sand castles at the beach and in a sandbox, but what about the vegetable garden?

When we really sit down and think about all the protocols we follow just to interact with other people, it's no wonder that children need darn near two decades of practice before we send them into the world on their own, often knowing that some of the rules will be intentionally ignored for a short period of time6. Putting these rules into a coherent fashion for a walking computer to follow while also appearing to be a cognitively present human being is going to be a remarkable feat of computational engineering.

We will do it, though. One day in our lifetime, we will all have the opportunity to have an android with us as an assistant, a servant, an outdoor labourer, or maybe even a companion7. Today's societal questions about rights, freedoms, and responsibilities will pale in comparison to the ones we'll ask when machines look, act, and appear to think like us.

Before we can embark on the journey to decide whether machines that look like people should have similar rights and freedoms as people, though, we'll need to give them rules. Tens of thousands … hundreds of thousands … perhaps millions of rules to follow in order to successfully navigate the social worlds our cultures have constructed over thousands of years.

  1. I've only ever seen one sci-fi show depict androids of different body sizes. While they may appear to be in various age groups, they are generally "perfect" with slim builds and amazing teeth.

  2. This future is a lot closer than people realise.

  3. Yes, people can use a fork and knife with pizza. I've seen this done and, on occasion, done so myself. Generally a fork and knife will reduce the chance of getting sauce on white clothes from spilled toppings.

  4. Okay, this is one that I haven't yet taught the boy. It's on the list, though.

  5. A machine with no autonomy would not have a list of "do nots", but instead a script of actions to be followed, possibly with some occasional randomness thrown in to provide the illusion of being human.

  6. When I lived at home, I would cook dinner for my many brothers, sisters, and parents, and later do the dishes five to six nights a week. Most meals resulted in anywhere from 25 to 60-odd items that needed washing. When I moved out into my first basement apartment, "cooking" involved making a simple tuna risotto in a single glassware bowl that was also the dish I ate from. Every meal had exactly 3 dishes: the bowl, a fork, and a glass for my soda. I drank Pepsi from a glass because I wasn't a complete animal at 17 ….

  7. Looking at how we've treated ourselves over the last few thousand years, some of these machines will be subject to some pretty lousy conditions. Things that no human should ever be condemned to. Depending on how much liberty and cognitive capacity the androids have, it may be necessary to grant them rights or, at the very least, limit what humans can order them to do.