Alexa, Can I watch TV now?

by Priyanka Raha ~ July 26, 2018

Good digital citizenship habits

Last week we talked about the importance of niceties when interacting with Alexa.  And if you read that article you know that Alexa is a representation of all voice activated A.I. systems. Should we say all of her cousins in the same family. 

Technological evolution is happening so fast that it has left us – parents, educators and concerned adults feeling a bit unbalanced. We haven’t had a chance to gather long range data about the impact of interaction with Alexa on kids. 

Psychologists and A.I. experts are working round the clock to decipher, as much as they can, the effects of humanoid helpers in our lives, especially in young kids. Peter Kahn, a psychologist at the University of Washington, has done research on how children perceive the humanoid helpers. Parents shouldn’t worry about their child treating their friends like they do Alexa, at least not in a direct way. 

The consequences are slightly more subtle and complicated than that.

Indulgence Dilemma

Alexa complies to requests without delay and at all times during the day. Interaction with the virtual assistant leads to instant gratification over continuous conditioning – when you are subjected to a given scenario repeatedly how you respond becomes habit even outside the situation. But that has been true for all technological gadgets, right? What is interesting about Alexa is that she does this 24-hours a day and through a screen-less voice activated system. This means she is available to be controlled by toddlers who have not yet learnt to operate a hand-held digital device.

Are we amplifying our kids’ tirade of ‘I want it now’?

Anthropomorphize Alexa

A slightly deeper concern is about imparting human-like features to our virtual assistants. Manners and etiquette teach our kids a sense of respect for the sensibilities of other people. In encouraging our kids to say ‘please’ are we suggesting that Alexa needs to be respected for  doing something that we asked her to do? Does that mean that Alexa has rights, and that one of these rights is to say ‘no’? 

Are we teaching our kids that machines have sensibilities?

Robotic Nicety

Here is another thought – telling children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to machines inculcates a robotic or mechanical like lifelessness to the rendition. I am afraid to say, I find the argument compelling that teaching kids to treat a piece of software, however intelligent that is, like you would treat people opens up questions about differentiating animate and inanimate objects.

Are we, in the process, teaching our kids to run through the polite words like courtesy routines without the importance meaning, effect or purpose?

None of the above is of course the intent of bringing in a humanoid helper into the house. Having a virtual assistant is powerful, fun and certainly the future. I am not for reversing the wheel ever. What I want for my kids is a world where they can thrive and not just survive. 

If you have been reading our blogs, you know this by now that we, at PopSmartKids, are all for mentoring and not monitoring. This is true for every aspect of growing up, and this is especially imperative when it comes to navigating the increasingly quasi-digital world around us.

If we let Alexa teach our kids good habits, can we let our kids ask Alexa any of the following questions.

Alexa, Can I watch TV now?

Alexa, Is it bedtime yet?

Alexa, what is 12 times 24?

If your answer is no, then where do we draw the line? What is allowed and what is not? Also, the big question is how should we decide that?

Next week we are going to make an attempt to answer some of these questions or at least discuss some of the ways that we can help our next generation apprehend the human-humanoid interaction.

Watch this space next week.