Dear Commons Community,
Rachel Botsman, the author of the forthcoming book, Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart, has an op-ed describing her 3-year old daughter’s interaction with Alexa, Amazon’s Echo companion. If you do not know Alexa, it is a black cylinder about ten inches high that can respond to a number of voice commands and questions. It has its own communication link to the Internet and can play music, tell the weather, buy merchandise, and perform a host of other services.
Botsman op-ed describes her daughter’s interaction with Alexa as follows.
“You are going to have a chance to play with Alexa,” I told my daughter, Grace, who’s 3 years old. Pointing at the black cylindrical device, I explained that the speaker, also known as the Amazon Echo, was a bit like Siri but smarter. “You can ask it anything you want,” I said nonchalantly.
Grace leaned forward toward the speaker. “Hello, Alexa, my name is Gracie,” she said. “Will it rain today?” The turquoise rim glowed into life. “Currently, it is 60 degrees,” a perky female voice answered, assuring her it wouldn’t rain.
Over the next hour, Grace figured out she could ask Alexa to play her favorite music from the film “Sing.” She realized Alexa could tell jokes, do math or provide interesting facts. “Hey, Alexa, what do brown horses eat?” And she soon discovered a whole new level of power. “Alexa, shut up,” she barked, then looked a little sheepish and asked me if it was O.K. to be rude to her. So she thought the speaker had feelings?
By the next morning, Alexa was the first “person” Grace said hello to as she bounded into the kitchen wearing her pink fluffy dressing gown. My preschooler who can’t yet ride a bike or read a book had also quickly mastered that she could buy things with the bot’s help, or at least try to.
“Alexa, buy me blueberries,” she commanded. Grace, of course, had no idea that Amazon, the world’s biggest retailer, was the corporate behemoth behind the helpful female assistant, and that smoothing the way when it came to impulse buys was right up Alexa’s algorithmic alley.
Grace’s easy embrace of Alexa was slightly amusing but also alarming. My small experiment, with my daughter as the guinea pig, drove home to me the profound shift in our relationship with technology. For generations, our trust in it has gone no further than feeling confident the machine or mechanism will do what it’s supposed or expected to do, nothing more, nothing less. We trust a washing machine to clean our clothes or an A.T.M. to dispense money, but we don’t expect to form a relationship with them or call them by name.
Today, we’re no longer trusting machines just to do something, but to decide what to do and when to do it. The next generation will grow up in an age where it’s normal to be surrounded by autonomous agents, with or without cute names.”
Botsman’s point is that our children and grandchildren are and will see Alexa-type devices as natural companions in their lives. They will grow to trust them and to make them a vital part of their daily activities. Alexa right now is a cylinder without any distinct physical features. A whole new aspect of man-machine interface will evolve when Alexas are manufactured that have humanoid features.