Poor old Alexa. Not only is Amazon’s personal assistant routinely accused of listening to our every conversation - ready to send every exchange off to its corporate overlord to help it sell us more stuff we don’t need - it is now being blamed for turning our children into rude and selfish oiks.
A report by Childwise as far back as last January claimed that the rise of voice-activated smart speakers could have “implications around how children will learn to communicate”. The suggestion is that having a robot at your beck and call, ready to respond to any request without the need for a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’.
Research director Simon Leggett said: “Will children become accustomed to saying and doing whatever they want to a digital assistant ‘do this, do that’ – talking as aggressively or rudely as they like without any consequences?”
“Will they then start doing the same to shop assistants or teachers?”
This concern has only grown in the last 18 months and this week at Amazon’s first Re:Mars conference, a vice president at the company said that it was “not Alexa’s job to parent children”.
You can criticise Amazon for many things, not least on privacy, but on this particular issue I am inclined to agree.
Let’s park the daft idea that kids and adults alike were not boorish and demanding before voice-assisted AI assistants came along. Many teachers and retail workers will attest to that, no doubt. But for the purposes of this argument, let us agree that an even greater sense of impoliteness is something the world could do without.
But putting bad manners at the virtual feet of a robot assistant seems a particularly egregious shifting of responsibility. Alexa and its ilk are, lest us forget, inanimate products nominally designed to make our lives easier. Insisting children treat Alexa the same way as a human being could feasibly have unintended consequences the other way. Do we really want to enforce the idea of treating an AI assistant with equivalence to a public-facing worker?
An extreme example, I know, but perhaps no less so than blaming impoliteness on a speaker. As with so many concerns that revolve around new tech, any issues that may arise with their use needs to be managed by parents. No one is saying it is easy, parents and children alike have a myriad of new challenges thrown up by the ubiquity of technology and social media. Should you choose to use Alexa in your home, bad habits that could be formed in conversation with the family robot need to be addressed by a human.
There is also an argument that AI assistants, used in the correct way, could be used to reinforce good manners in conversation. Both Alexa and Google’s Home assistant have options that mean they respond positively to politeness. They will still perform actions asked without a please - meaning that the gadget is not demanding anything from its users - but will use positive reinforcement for good manners with a ‘thanks’ of its own for asking so nicely.
This feels like the right balance between encouraging politeness without drawing too much equivalence between a speaker and human interaction. Smart speaker technology today, too, requires a different pattern of speech to ensure that it responds to your requests accurately. My own son was polite to a fault when we had Alexa plugged in, with a drawn out “Alexa, could you please…” consistently confusing the poor thing. (And if you are wondering if this was a parental humblebrag, he certainly wasn’t getting that from me as I yelled “ALEXA, TIMER, 30 MINUTES” when putting on the roast potatoes).
As AI assistant technology becomes more advanced, including screens and even robotic companions, the lines will become increasingly blurred. Whether you are an advocate for such gadgets or not, that they will become an increased presence in our lives and the lives of our children seems inevitable. It is up to us, then, to understand ourselves and help others navigate that challenge. Lesson one should be politeness to our fellow humans, regardless of whether we are saying please when asking a speaker to read out the football scores.