My wife and I recently had our first child, a happy and healthy daughter who just turned 1 month old. We’ve also had an Amazon Echo sitting on our kitchen counter for about two years now, and before our daughter arrived, my wife had expressed concerns about how she would talk to Alexa in front of our daughter. We took a rainy afternoon while our daughter was napping to talk about her concerns about Alexa, while Alexa occasionally interrupted.
So what are your worries about how we speak to Alexa?
I think it all started when I realized how much I would yell at Alexa when I would get angry. It happened most often when it played music when I wanted to listen to the radio. For a while, whenever I wanted to listen to WNYC, I got Wu-Tang Clan, which is not what I wanted at seven in the morning. So then I’d be frustrated, and I’ll yell “No!” because you generally have to give Alexa very strong direction.
Would you feel guilty about yelling at the Echo?
I wouldn’t feel guilty, but it would be a self-reinforcing cycle because I was shouting or speaking loudly, and that would make me angrier. So I would notice that, but I did really like listening to the radio in the morning and using Alexa. So I started to think about what my newborn would hear, what her experience would be. Which would basically be her mom yelling at a machine. And that didn’t seem that great.
You’re worried about her modeling her behavior off of how you interact with the voice assistant?
Yeah. My concern was that what she would see is that if you talk to an Alexa, you yell at it, and that it was okay to do that. And in the long run, that’s probably not the best behavior to model.
It would also be the first behavior she would see. Since I would be staying at home when she was born and there wouldn’t be that many people around me during the day, she’d probably hear me talk to Alexa a lot. I mean, honestly, I thought it might be possible that her first word might be Alexa, since that would be one of the most consistent things I’d be saying over the course of the day.
It’s just the tone that you use with Alexa that you’re worried about it? I sometimes think what I worry about more is when we talk to the Echo, there’s this sort of master-servant relationship. The way that I talk to Alexa, if I talked to you or anybody in our lives like that —
[Alexa interjects] Sorry, I’m not sure about that.
Sorry, Alexa. If I talked like that, I would sound like a sociopath. All the social niceties that allow us to function as a society, you toss them out when you talk to these things.
Right, like the function of talking to Alexa is just to deliver direction with no intonation and none of the cues that we use to tell somebody we see them as a person.
Like even if we lived in turn-of-the-century England and we had actual house servants, I would speak to them much more politely than I speak to Alexa.
Right, but also we can’t even speak that politely to Alexa. Like, tone yes, you can kinda train yourself —
[Alexa interjects] I’m not quite sure how to help you with that.
You can train yourself to have a nicer tone, but the directions she responds to aren’t that polite. You can’t say, “Thank you, Alexa” for her to stop something. You just have to say “No” or “Stop,” which is not how I would ever talk to an actual person.
Amazon is rolling out Alexa for kids. A lot of it is parental control, so if our kid asks for WNYC, she won’t get an explicit song from the Wu-Tang Clan. But the other part of it is this positive-reinforcement thing where if our daughter starts saying “Please” to Alexa, Alexa will positively reinforce that by saying “Thank you so much for saying please,” or something like that. Is that something you’d like to see voice assistants do more of?
It’s better than nothing. If the alternative is having nothing at all, then that’s better. But I don’t think that’s a solution necessarily. I also think that by the time you’re 5 — I don’t know that much about child development, but hasn’t that ship already sailed?
Right, like if you’re 5 and you haven’t learned “Please” and “Thank you,” is a smart talking cylinder gonna be the thing that teaches you?
I think the bigger question — that I don’t have the answer to — is, what is the relationship that a child should have to an AI, or basically to a robot that responds to voice? What should that relationship actually look like? And why does it matter? I think it matters because … I don’t know why. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
I mean right now it doesn’t matter so much because we just use Alexa as a thing to stream audio a little bit easier than our old Bluetooth speaker. Do we want to have an Alexa around when she’s actually old enough to talk to it and have it respond?
I have no idea. It depends on how much I want WNYC in my life.
But there are other ways to get WNYC.
Yeah, there are, but it’s really hard to go back to the less easy way of accessing something. And there’s nothing easier than saying, “Alexa, play WYNC.” Especially when you have —
[Alexa interjects] Getting your WNYC-FM news.
Alexa, no thank you.
[Alexa interjects] Getting your WNYC —.
It’s hard to go backward. And if anything, having a kid puts more tax on your hands, so it’s even harder to do things another way.
There’s suddenly a much higher premium on being hands-free. Pulling out your phone is much more of an annoyance when you’re holding a squirmy kid.
I think the real solution is just having a radio in our kitchen.
Buy a boom box that takes D-cell batteries and call it a day.
But then you don’t get the podcasts. And asking for the weather is helpful. Honestly, just being across the room and asking what time it is is also helpful.
I think the main thing that worries me about her growing up with an Echo is it being a knowledge base. We don’t use it to answer questions all that much. But when she’s 5, I don’t think she should have a cell phone or open access to the internet, but she could definitely ask something of this machine and it’ll deliver whatever information that Amazon or Google or whatever company decides to deliver. Do you worry about that being a source of knowledge for her?
I don’t worry about it being a source of knowledge for her because I think it would just mean that she is more curious, that she searches for information more in the course of conversation. I don’t think that’s bad necessarily. What’s bad and scares the crap out of me is the fact that Alexa will know everything she’s asked. It’s more about what I’m sure is a psychographic profile that a multi-billion-dollar company would build for my 3-year-old.
I have a hard time imagining she won’t be an Amazon customer for the next hundred years, so giving a company that type of information that young — that’s what really messes with me.
It doesn’t feel good.
There’s no way I can lie to myself and think that ends well. Maybe I’m not creative enough with my lies?
Is there an ideal — if the original thing that we talked about was yelling at Alexa or talking to it in this “master-servant” relationship, is there a way we can model good behavior to Alexa? Is that something we need to worry about, or is she just gonna grow up in a world where she’s gonna have a lot of electronic servants, and this is how you speak to them?
I still think that modeling good behavior is in general a good idea because if it’s the first way she’s hearing me talk, she doesn’t know it’s a robot yet, and modeling good behavior on how you speak is just what I should do. I do also think when you yell at the robots at the house, you get grumpier. Or at least I get grumpier. So maybe she learns that you shouldn’t yell at them, just for your own sake.
Just for your own mental health.
Or for her, if she’s frustrated with a robot, you shouldn’t yell at them and curse at them, you’ll just feel worse. You should just take a deep breath and say what you said again, just repeat yourself. That that is a good thing to do. I don’t think we’ll be able to redefine the master-servant, human-AI thing.
We’re not going to be able to completely rewrite the AI-human paradigm ourselves, as parents.
If thinking and talking about how we speak to Alexa is somehow doing anything, it’s probably just helping us be in denial about that.
Denial is probably a cornerstone of modern parenting regardless, so.
I’m not sure I understand the AI-human relationship well enough to come up with what the problem with it is right now, and what is the problem we should be trying to solve.
All you know right now is you don’t want her hearing you yelling at Alexa.
Yeah, actually I’d be really bummed if she was 3 years old and she started cursing at Alexa.
I mean, I’d be really bummed if she was 3 years old and cursing at anything.
Right, but I don’t curse at anything like I’ve cursed at Alexa.