Growing Up Alexa

A few months ago, I wrote about how Alexa and Google Home are used in our house. In my experience, these devices are a better way for kids to use the internet than a mobile phone. A phone becomes an extension of a person, isolating her from the group. Interacting with Alexa is more of a family activity with Alexa acting like another person in the room.

Some people think it’s odd to treat Alexa humanely. As a machine, she doesn’t have any feelings. But think about the way we refer to Alexa. It feels more natural to refer to Alexa as a “her” than an “it” because that’s the way we interface with her. And if we interface with her as a person, we should be polite and say please and thank you.

To children, Alexa has become a member of the family. Having a five-year-old who has grown up with Alexa, I’ve discovered a new developmental milestone. Developmental milestones are skills that kids learn at a certain age,  e.g., learning to sit up, learning to talk, and learning to count. Now there’s a new one. It’s the skill of “Learning to speak well enough so that Alexa can understand you.” If you have a 2-year-old with emerging language skills you’ll frequently hear her screaming “Lex-a, Lex-a, Lex-a, you listen me,” until she develops the language skills to be understood by the device.

I heard another similar story from a friend. Her daughter had just moved from a crib to a toddler bed. Immediately, she said ran out to the living room and said, “Alexa! Alexa! I got a big girl bed!”

Because our kids relate to Alexa like another person, we would like the kids to say “Please” and “Thank You.” It feels weird when kids speak abruptly to Alexa because they’re speaking to a person. It’s not about the machine’s feelings. It’s about the environment of the house and making the kids practice politeness. Of course, you could go overboard with politeness like this great parody “Southern Alexa.”

Amazon and Google are starting to build out this functionality. Amazon bundles their Magic Word functionality with a larger (and more painful) kids bundle called Freetime. Hopefully Google’s Pretty Please functionality will be easier to use when it launches. Also, the Alexa team has also programmed Alexa to avoid sexist insults because picking on a fake girl is still picking on a girl.

There’s a big difference between using a computer and using an Alexa. Used well, it becomes part of your family. It’s not just a device which makes you smarter, it’s another entity in the room. So I’d like everyone to be polite to her.