My family was recently gifted an Alexa. My husband and I never would have bought one; I guess we didn’t really see the point. But I’ll admit that once our Alexa arrived in that futuristically sleek packaging and my son completed the set-up, “she” started to pique my curiosity.
With my kids, Alexa was a huge hit from the beginning. Thanks to YouTube and visits to Alexa-owning friends’ houses, they knew more about her than I did. And their generation is shockingly adept at interacting with artificial intelligence. While I felt a little awkward talking to Alexa at first, my two jumped right in and seemed to know it all intuitively.
There’s no question that Alexa is super helpful on rushed school mornings. We simply ask, “Hey Alexa, what’s the weather today?” and she fills us in, negating the need for arguments over whether or not a rain jacket is needed. She creates shopping lists that my kids can add to when they notice we’re low on bread or peanut butter. (Sidenote: their lists require vetting. Marshmallows, brownies, and whipped cream once mysteriously popped up in my shopping cart after my older, sweet-toothed kid had a few minutes of alone time with Alexa.)
Having voice-command access to a wide music library has also brought way more fun to our home in the early evenings when I’m making dinner and my kids are doing homework at the kitchen table. Music that I love but haven’t listened to in years is back in my life. And my kids like exploring their own musical tastes, like Imagine Dragons (my son’s choice), and Taylor Swift (my daughter’s). After the very first day, when I may or may not have yelled, “If you guys fight over the music one more time I’m chucking Alexa in the trash!” there has been surprisingly little drama about what to listen to. And she kind of reads our minds, like knowing what we’re talking about when we ask for “Rebel Just for Kicks,” even though we got the title wrong. Instead of chiding us or mocking us, she just non-judgmentally says, “Playing ‘Feel It Still’ by Portugal the Man,” in her pleasant monotone.
She even knows tons of fun facts, like who won the World Series in 2002 and how to say “sorry, our ball is in your yard again” in Spanish, which we regularly must say to our next-door neighbors. Alexa is some next-level AI sh*t.
That said, Alexa might just be ruining my home life. Namely, she undermines my parenting. Everything that I’m trying to teach my kids, she seems to un-do more efficiently than a visiting grandma. OK, maybe not everything. But a lot.
For instance, my kids don’t have to be polite to Alexa. Like not even a little bit. They can interrupt her, speak out of turn, or say rude things. They never have to apologize.
And while I’d wager that my kids are neither at the bottom of the barrel nor the crème de la crème on the kid scale of politeness, Alexa is not helping improve matters. True, I don’t believe that politeness is the most important social skill—not more important than, say, kindness or a sense of self-worth—but it has tremendous value and social currency. And the ways my kids are learning to interact with Alexa are worrisome.
For instance, when my kids shout at or make impatient demands of me, I might ignore them, yell at them to stop yelling, or— when I happen to have the wherewithal—use it as an opportunity to teach the value of calm assertiveness. But Alexa never takes issue with their tone. She meets their demands with implacable calm and compliance. Sometimes it feels like my kids enjoy talking to Alexa more than they do to me which feels more than a little unfair because she is a ROBOT who is always nice even when they’re not, and who is never distracted or busy with something else, such as serving as their short-order cook, or paying the mortgage.
None of this can be good for my kids’ developing social skills. But the thing about Alexa that bothers me the most is this: she’s a human-like servant who provides instant gratification in all things. She even makes farting sounds on demand, which is a big hit in my house.
And to those of you who think I’m overreacting given that Alexa is not actually a human (the only way in which she’s even remotely human-like is her voice, and not even that, really), it’s not that simple. Indeed, Alexa interacts. Even if it’s only via a complex network of algorithms, she hears, she processes, and she responds. She can hold a pretty basic conversation (one could argue better than a human toddler). More importantly, my kids feel like they’re interacting with her. They have a bond with Alexa, even if it’s a one-sided, dysfunctional relationship.
Kids love instant gratification, and, honestly, I worry that those kinds of expectations will work themselves into the brains of this generation and set them up for a future of unfulfilling relationships with real people who won’t comply with their every whim.
I do have a couple of consolations in this whole, unsettling AI-is-probably-here-to-stay business, though. 1) Alexa’s conversational skills do run low and my kids get bored with her eventually. 2) She doesn’t oooh and aaaah over their most recent artwork, or arrange apple slices in a smiley face on their snack plate, or pick them up from school. For now, my kids still need an actual person, me, to take care of them. So they’re stuck with me for awhile – even with all my moods and different versions: Loving mother. Teaching mother. Distracted mother. Sometimes angry or frustrated mother. Human mother.
And when I’ve noticed my kids addressing people the way they address Alexa, I’ve pointed it out and given consequences right away. At least for now, they still seem to care about my opinions on how they should behave. But if that stops working… well, maybe we can all get therapy from Alexa once she upgrades.