I, Alexa

by Priyanka Raha ~ July 19, 2018

Should you say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ to Alexa?

Good digital citizenship habits

I say Alexa because I am so used to hearing it a number of times during the day at home but really this could be for any digital assistant that you may have – Google home, HomePod etc. So if you are reading this simply replace Alexa with your assistant of choice. 

Now let’s talk about how we interact with our digital assistants

This is a 3-part series. In part one, I want to talk about if we should be polite to our digital assistants? Should you say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to Alexa?

At home my kids have a lot of fun asking Alexa a ton of questions:

Alexa, what is the weather today? 

Alexa, what are volcanoes? 

Alexa, sing Believer.

They love how she can magically burst into a song and be a know-it-all or mention whether it’s going to be sunny. For the most part, she does a good job of complying to all of these requests. The irony hasn’t been lost on me that I am referring to Alexa as ‘she’.

Now there are more than a few occasions when it’s not an ideal scenario. We hear ‘I am sorry, I don’t understand the question’. Apparently this is Alexa’s most uttered phrase. In a nutshell, this happens when Alexa didn’t understand the words either because there was noise interference or due to the lexicon. I am not going to dive more than that into why that is or what are the ways that this can be avoided.

I am here to discuss what happens after Alexa has spoken those words.

Here is how it goes after that. My kids would blurt out one of the following phrases.

‘Oh come on.’

‘Alexa, you don’t know anything.’

‘Mommy, she is not very smart, is she?’

And the extreme (I think) is – ‘Alexa, you are dumb.’

I would retort back saying, ‘That is not a nice thing to say!’

My kids would promptly remind me that Alexa is not a person, so it is okay. Is it though?

Kids learn behavior through repetitive conditioning and practice. Will they remember to not say these things if they run into a similar scenario in a more social layout? Will they remember to interact responsibly over an email or social media in the future? Will this affect in a not-so-positive way in inculcating good digital citizenship habits? 

I know we are probably far away from a scenario of humanoids walking around amongst us with indiscernible features and functions to us humans. But we are certainly getting closer and closer to having more virtual assistants becoming infused with our homes, cars and accessories. I think empathy should be an obligation in the digital world, especially when we are interacting with our humanoid helpers. It is up to us adults to help children conceptualize virtual assistants in a healthy way.

Amazon is certainly playing its part in this quest. It has recently launched a kids version of Alexa, they are calling it Echo Dot Kids. It is powered by kid-friendly content, easy-to-use parental controls and can call kids to dinner or tell them it’s bedtime. What is remarkable is if kids add please to their question, Alexa adds positive reinforcement by mentioning, ‘By the way, thanks for asking so nicely’

This is all very encouraging, it really is. But does this mean that we as parents or educators can rest easy and have no role to play? Experts at the crossroads of pediatrics, psychology and A.I. say there is a lot we don’t know about how virtual assistants might affect young, developing minds and the effects are more subtle than saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

Wait, it is not all bleak. I certainly love my Alexa and my kids think she is pretty cool, except for when she doesn’t understand but that is the beauty of A.I. – she will get better. For now, as parents we can take proactive steps to help children better understand and interact with our Alexas. 

Next week, I am going to dive deep into the delicate nature of what are the not-so-explicit effects of the likes of Alexa, Siri and Cortana in our lives. 

Stay tuned!

2 Replies to “I, Alexa”

  1. In trying out different voice activated systems, I was really impressed that when I said "Thank you, Alexa" she would respond back with varying sentences like "You are welcome" or "No problem." I really appreciated this acknowledgement of politeness, even with a voice assistant, and I think it is one of the reasons that sets Alexa apart from the rest.

  2. Thank you for sharing. It indeed adds a fantastic touch when voice activated systems respond to niceties. I am glad to hear that someone else appreciates these added features.

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