When Our Tools Become Partners
When Our Tools Become Partners

Alexa, play Ray Charles.

Alexa, order another box of dishwasher detergent.

Alexa, turn out the lights.

Alexa, how do you know when someone really loves you?

I was the first I knew to join Amazon Prime. I’ve never hung an Amazon flag over my front porch, but I might as well have for all I’ve done to evangelize its services in the years since. So of course I had an Echo at the start.

The truth sat on my kitchen counter for more than a year. I imagine it laughed at me to pass the time, waiting for the day I’d finally recognize it.

I’d tell it to play the kinds of podcasts we like to listen to. I’d ask for the weather. I’d set timers when the chicken went in the oven and ordered my share of Roomba replacement parts.

Wasn’t I special, living in the future.

Until I realized I wasn’t. I was just living in now. The future – the one with the next next generation of Alexas and the kids who grew up with them – is going to be much more complex. As I started researching, it hit me like a bad movie trailer—nothing would ever be the same.

Plunge a knife into a raw steak. Did you consider whether the knife wanted to do the job? Did you wonder if perhaps it had other things in mind for the evening?

Of course not. Those are the thoughts of a madman. Knives require no warning, no persuasion, no empathy. I don’t have to explain to my knife why I cut with the grain when Serious Eats said only idiots and amateurs do that.

If Alexa could cut a steak, she would. Ask her to do anything within her power, and she will, unfailingly. But she’s no knife, even though most of us treat her that way. There is an emotional element and connection to this voice technology that is unprecedented in our relationship with household tools. And that sets it apart.

The youngest among us, little boys and girls who’ve never known a world without Alexas and others like her, have an entirely different relationship with this emerging technology. MIT Technology Review’s Rachel Metz described her daughter’s feelings:

"I wasn’t sure if Hannah knew whether Alexa is human. So I asked, and this is what she told me: Alexa is “a kind of robot” who lives in her house, and robots, she reasoned, aren’t people. But she does think Alexa has feelings, happy and sad. And Hannah says she would feel bad if Alexa went away. Does that mean she has to be nice to Alexa? Yes, she says, but she’s not sure why."

It's possible Hannah will grow out of it, that she’ll shake off childish things like the Tooth Fairy and an emotional connection to a disembodied voice. That she’ll join the ranks of the rest of us callous grumps, bossing our Alexas around just to prove we can.

I won’t bet on it. There is something foundational at play: the largest shift in the history of the relationship between mankind and our technology.

From the first time some Flintstone Einstein sharpened a stick and shoved it into an unsuspecting wildebeest to the age of cell phones and computers, technology has been a tool.

But for Hannah, and every Hannah after her, it will be a partner—and voice is the reason why. Not Alexa’s dull, robotic monotone (which is bound to rapidly improve into a perfect forgery of the real thing), but ours.

My voice betrays me. I say one thing and everyone in the room knows I mean another. Conversation is perhaps our most intimate and personal form of communication. We hold anyone willing to listen to us in high regard.

And if there’s one thing Alexa does well, it’s listen.

This technology will inevitably become a part of nearly everyone’s lives. But it will mean something distinctly different for coming generations who’ve never known anything else.

It’s not hard to imagine how young children might speak more to their Alexa than their parents or friends. And it’s not hard to imagine the trust and bond they might establish with the technology in the process.

The Verge reported on a recent experiment that shows just how quickly this type of bond can form:

89 volunteers were recruited to complete a pair of tasks with the help of Nao, a small humanoid robot. The participants were told that the tasks (which involved answering a series of either / or questions, like “Do you prefer pasta or pizza?”; and organizing a weekly schedule) were to improve Nao’s learning algorithms. But this was just a cover story, and the real test came after these tasks were completed, and scientists asked participants to turn off the robot.

In roughly half of experiments, the robot protested, telling participants it was afraid of the dark and even begging: “No! Please do not switch me off!” When this happened, the human volunteers were likely to refuse to turn the bot off. Of the 43 volunteers who heard Nao’s pleas, 13 refused. And the remaining 30 took, on average, twice as long to comply compared to those who did not not hear the desperate cries at all. (Just imagine that scene from The Good Place for reference.)

When quizzed about their actions, participants who refused to turn the robot off gave a number of reasons for doing so. Some said they were surprised by the pleas; others, that they were scared they were doing something wrong. But the most common response was simply that the robot said it didn’t want to be switched off, so who were they to disagree?

As the study’s authors write: “Triggered by the objection, people tend to treat the robot rather as a real person than just a machine by following or at least considering to follow its request to stay switched on.”

Take that contained lab experiment and play it out over the most formative developmental years of an entire generation’s lives. The implications are dizzying.

In the short term, parents of young children report dealing with a range of Alexa-inspired issues. They struggle with how Alexa can reward bossy or demanding language, or how it can too easily solve a child’s boredom, potentially stunting their creative thinking.

These strike me as surface issues resting above a massive chasm between how today’s parents and their young children view technology.

These differences could have profound implications on how emerging generations might view the most critical issues of their time, like the continued development of artificial intelligence, the displacement of human jobs at the hands of machines, and the role of privacy (does Alexa deserve any?), to name a few.

Those of us who deal in the murky and subjective world of human behavior, who devote ourselves to understanding why people do the crazy things they do, know the limits of our own perspective.

The only way to begin to understand why anyone does anything is to try to see the world from their point of view.

For us, Alexa is a useful tool. But for every generation to follow, she is the first step into a very different world.

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