Alexa, raise my children.

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.

Calling my daughter a “princess”

I want to preface this post by saying that I don’t think there is anything wrong with traditional femininity or masculinity. But, I want my kids to grow up feeling that they can be whoever they are on the inside, which may include many variations around the gender/identity spectrum. When I see traditional character traits being projected on to them (and I am sure I do it too), it makes me ponder topics like this.

We begin imprinting on our children the moment they come into this world. If a baby cries and makes a particularly scrunchy face–he’s angry. An involuntary smile (that probably happened while passing gas)–she’s sweet. Sure newborns have temperaments and personalities, but they are still largely blank slates. Personality comes only after adding up all of the little experiences, encouragements, discouragements, comments, and other stimuli (and of course the interactions with their genetics).

When our triplets were in the NICU, I could see how differently they were treated, or rather how the nurses and doctors referred to them. We have two boys and one girl. And the thing that really stood out for me was many people called our daughter “princess.”

What made her a princess, though? What does it mean to be a princess? To me, that word evokes femininity, frilly pink clothes, and being protected. It is an indicator of the “girl” corner of the gender spectrum and all of the things we associate with girls.

And if people keep calling my daughter a princess and keep buying her pink clothing and treating her as a fragile treasure, how will her little developing brain respond to this? Will she take on those traits, those things that in our Western culture we associate with the feminine? Or are there elements within her that would come out no matter how she was treated?

I have had many friends with children comment to me how different their boys and girls came out. With so little difference in upbringing, they were amazed at how their boys gravitated towards trucks and army men and their girls got into dolls and frilly dresses. Now that I have my own kids, though, I have to wonder, how soon were people calling their girls “princess?”

For further reading on actual research around how we treat our kids, check out this article in the Washington Post.

Augmented Reality and My Kids

I know what I need–Augmented Reality (AR) glasses for tending to my newborn triplets in the middle of the night. Think about it. It’s 2 a.m., one of the babies starts crying. They all start crying. I wake up, bleary-eyed, confused. I put on my AR glasses and say “baby lights on.” In my field of vision, it looks like I have turned all the lights in the house on full blast. I walk downstairs, get their bottles ready, change them, feed them, put them to bed. I never turn on the lights as far as they are concerned. But, I see everything, get enough light to wake up, and when I am done, take off the glasses and pass right back out until the next feeding time in what feels like 20 minutes.

Of course, there are technical problems here. Headset AR is too bulky right now–I am not going to strap on a HoloLens and stumble around the house. I also don’t want to horrify my children as I am leaning over their cribs with a giant mask on; I may as well wear a pair of night vision goggles. I need something that wears like a pair of glasses.

Aside from the bulk, the type of simulated lighting that I want is not generally available yet. What would it take to scan the room, use the available light to map it, and then re-render everything as if it was bathed in bright light? If it isn’t possible now, thought, it will be. Heck, the technology will eventually be able to bath the room in starlight, or make the room look like it is on the surface of another planet. If I am going to tend to my kids in a fog, maybe it can be the fog of Venus’s atmosphere.

I’m ready. But, by the time this is all available, I think the kids will be past nighttime diaper changes.