As my kids get older, as all kids get older, they become more aware of the various stimuli around them. For example, when I say, “Alexa, what’s the weather?” they look at me, and then over to the Echo when a response comes through. They are responding to their own names. Maybe they are starting to understand that we are “mom” and “dad”. But, what is their developing understanding of the meaning of “Alexa”?
Is it a name to them? Is it something we call out into the ether, resulting in a response from a real human? They interact with their grandparents and aunts and uncle during FaceTime chats. Who do they think Alexa is then?
I am not sure that I am ready for my kids to humanize electronics. The Echo is a dumb speaker that connects to the cloud to process voice requests and return responses with synthesized speech. It–and let’s never forget that it is an “it”–doesn’t have feelings, doesn’t have self awareness, doesn’t have anything even close to human intelligence. None of us should be treating our devices as if they do. Especially when we don’t have much in the way of research on how these interactions play into child development.
I am, sadly, also not ready to give up on voice-activated computer queurying. I believe that it is a significant part of our technological future. I also believe that perhaps we will develop general artificial intelligence in our lifetimes. If (when?) that happens, I am open to treating those new beings like I treat my fellow human.
For now, I made a change that I hope will at least help my kids understand the difference between interacting with humans through technology and interacting with the technology itself. I renamed “Alexa” to “Computer”. You can make the same change in your settings on the Alexa app on your phone.
My kids don’t yet know that “Alexa” is a human name while “Computer” is what we call a class of objects. But, as they are developing, and Jessie and I point to things or people or animals and assign them names, this distinction between the “computer” and “grandma” will, I hope, make sense to them.
I just don’t want them to think that machines equal people, or that grandma has a wake word and takes commands.
Update: I drafted this post a couple weeks ago. Since then, the kids have further developed their relationship with the Echo. Now, when one of us calls out “computer” to it, all three of them turn their heads towards the speaker before a response comes. Oy.