Zia Hassan

Lets Talk To Our Children About Humans And Robots

I have four Alexa echos in my house. We use the echos to turn lights on when we’re holding babies, to arm our alarm system when we’re walking out the door, to keep timers while we’re working, and most recently we’ve set up our son’s room to turn off lights and turn on white noise/humidifier machines simultaneously with one command. I’ve also used Alexa to turn off my downstairs space heater after 30 minutes of use.

We aren’t too polite to Alexa, which may need to change now that we have a child. A few people have pointed out to us that we often just give Alexa commands like “Turn on the alarm” or “turn on the den lights” without saying please or thank you. They think it will create bad habits in our children.

Saying please to a robot seems unnecessary, and inefficient… at least in a home where no children are present. But what if it turns out that how we talk to our voice controlled robots may affects our children’s manners? I tried to find studies on this, but came up empty handed. I did, however, find the opinion of a Fast Company writer which made me think:

By extending these human social norms to software and cloud services, are we teaching children that machines have sensibilities to be considered the same way we consider human feelings? Being polite to a piece of technology may suggest that AI assistants are capable of feeling appreciated or unappreciated; that machines have rights; and that one of these rights is the right to refuse our requests.

In teaching children to treat machines like people, we may also be treating people like machines. Telling kids to say “please” and “thank you” to software, knowing that no feelings are involved, could be construed to be telling them to to run their courtesy routines automatically regardless of meaning, effect, or purpose.

I wouldn’t want my child to develop poor manners as a result of saying Alexa commands, and I also wouldn’t want them to start assigning emotions and feelings to a robot.

My takeaway is that we all need to have “the talk” with our kids at some point about what it means to be human. This sort of talk used to be relegated to thought experiments that only the more philosophical parents would engage with.

Now, it’s a necessity. Today’s children are born into a world that is connected by technology; as such, they should understand its logical and emotional limits. The future will favor those who know how to “talk” to computers (via coding or other similar skills), but I now believe that the future will favor those who can understand what comprises a computer.

That underneath Alexa’s silky voice, and Google’s doodle of the day, are the same elements we’ve always seen in computers: memory, storage, processing, and peripherals. And even machine learning is based on algorithms, which means that artificial intelligence is still just that, artificial.

If children grow up knowing the true distinction between a robot and a human, perhaps they will be able to better optimize their robotic and Human Resources to meet their goals, build their businesses, and live their lives. And if not saying please and thank you to robots is our subconscious reminder of this distinction, then let’s teach our kids to be impolite to robots.