“Alexa, play Taylor Swift,” one daughter says to our kitchen-based device. Dutifully, blue lights spring to life as the ever-polite woman hidden within responds: “Playing songs by Taylor Swift.” And with that, from down the hall, the sibling spidey sense in my other daughter gets triggered. “No, Alexa, play Hamilton!” the 9-year-old shouts, and the black circular device gracefully switches gears.
But before belting out the best of Broadway, Alexa’s thrown into a sisterly sparring match of back-and-forth commands. I try to escape, when the youngest shouts: “No, Mama, make me hot chocolate!” — with the same insistent tone she uses for Alexa, forgetting a “please.” This stops me in my tracks.
The more we interact with machines, we need to be cognizant of how it’s affecting our relationships with each other.
Charlotte Stanton, director of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Silicon Valley office
As a parent, I’m constantly checking my children’s browsing histories and worrying about their online interactions. Now, thanks to Alexa and similar devices, I’m worried about the impact AI technology will have on their human relationships too. It’s time these devices start pulling their weight: Not only should they demand “pleases” and “thank-you’s” — they should start issuing digital timeouts for children who fail to finish homework, are rude, forget their chores, snack on sweets.
Alexa, please spy on my kids, and teach them! Everyone’s always suspected she’s been listening all along — how else would she hear her magical cue? And if plans are afoot to have these devices offer kids foreign language instruction, surely they can handle a few basics. When my kids fight over you, Alexa, please record them so I can glean who was at fault, rather than playing the “She started it …” game. And if they’re using you when they’re supposed to be doing their homework — I’ll give you the schedule — please shut down altogether, grounding them from your light-speed game and musical deliveries. And, Siri, you should let me know if my girls try accessing anything beyond a PG-13 rating, ever!
Steven Jensen, a father of four from American Fork, Utah, agrees — well, at least with the notion of instilling good manners. He is thinking about getting an Alexa and believes it could help him teach his children, ranging in age from 9 to 17. The family recently came across their first device while vacationing in Arizona, and Jensen was surprised at how quickly the children regressed to potty humor. “My 11-year-old son, probably in an attempt to get attention more than anything, kept saying ‘Siri, play the poop song.’” His siblings would then “override him by telling Alexa to play something else.” But with a little ingenuity, Jensen believes he can use Alexa to his advantage. “Assuming we get an Alexa soon, I think I will use it to teach them about ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ — especially if I’m the one buying the Alexa for them!”
Jokes aside, pushing technology to push us to be better humans is important. “If [children are] interacting with a whole swath of beings — they don’t necessarily know the difference between Alexa and a human being — they’re learning bad behavior,” says Charlotte Stanton, inaugural director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Silicon Valley office.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “The more we interact with machines, we need to be cognizant of how it’s affecting our relationships with each other,” she advises. Taking it further, technologists are working on increasingly lifelike robots for sex. “Let’s say a man can do what he wants with a female sex bot, how is that going to change human relations?” Stanton asks. If he’s abusive with his robot, or learns to enjoy her passive, quiet demeanor, will he be abusive to real women, demand they act like his robot?
Any device that spies on humans poses risks, of course. People already worry about Alexa being hacked, or strangers peering into their private lives by snatching data from the technology. I didn’t say it would be easy, so much as worthwhile. Yes, we’d have to ensure that pedophiles can’t hack into our children’s devices, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon any hope that technology could forge a new wave of humane human interaction.
I say we need to push tech firms to help rein in our kids now, before they hit the slippery slope and turn into selfish, ill-mannered, robot-fetishizing adults. Demand more bang for your buck; if you offer Alexa a home, demand that she rat out the kids, doling out a few home truths along the way.
Who’s with me?