Published on: March 6, 2017by Kevin Coupe
The Washington Post has a story about how there are emerging concerns about the impact that "robotic voice assistants" - such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, Microsoft’s Cortana - are having on children's ability not just to obtain information, but also to interact with actual human beings.
"Many parents," the story says, "have been startled and intrigued by the way these disembodied, know-it-all voices ... are impacting their kids’ behavior, making them more curious but also, at times, far less polite ... Boosters of the technology say kids typically learn to acquire information using the prevailing technology of the moment — from the library card catalogue, to Google, to brief conversations with friendly, all-knowing voices. But what if these gadgets lead children, whose faces are already glued to screens, further away from situations where they learn important interpersonal skills?"
The premise is that these assistants are creating two tendencies on the part of children. One is that they ask simple questions and expect simple answers, with no room for nuance and complexity. The other is that they become entitled, losing the ability to interact with other people in ways that are polite and civil, with a degree of emotional intelligence.
The result of both tendencies is kids that see relationships as transactional rather than personal.
It strikes me as critical that parents take responsibility for the ways in which their children develop intellectually and emotionally; if their kids seem to be demanding and rude in their interactions with AI assistants, then it is up to parents to explain why it is important to say "please" and thank you" whenever talking to them. (I always do this, and endeavor always to speak to Alexa in the same tones that I would use when talking to another person.) And rather than just allowing children to get all their information from the Echo or Google Home, it is important from time to time to unplug the damned thing and make kids do a little more research and get a sense of nuance and context.
AI is a tool. An increasingly valuable tool, to be sure, but only a tool. Parents have to teach kids how to use these technological tools in the same way as they would teach them how to use a hacksaw or a hammer.
And by the way, parents also have to teach kids how to interact with other people. How to be pleasant, how to be civil, how to be compassionate and curious and empathetic. How to say please and thank you. Meet a kid who has none of these skills, and the odds are pretty good that the parents don't have them, either, and the existence of AI matters not a bit.
As it happens, we live in a world where civility and nuance are in short supply. I don't think that is the fault of AI. But perhaps it will serve to open our eyes to an alarming trend.
- KC's View: