“Alexa, order me a taxi.”
“Siri, exactly how many calories are there in a 10-inch, deep pan margherita pizza?”
"Google, can you put on the second episode of the fourth season of Game of Thrones?"
In the past few years, technology has become either scarily intrusive or incredibly useful, depending on which side of the personal privacy fence you’re stationed on. What was pure science fiction in the 1980s and 1990s is now reality – we’re able to bark instructions or questions at a computerised device that stands on the kitchen worktop and have it open the curtains, switch on the air conditioning or report back on how much petrol is in the car’s tank.
Connectivity is inescapable, but for some observers, already it’s become too much. And the principal cause for concern is the ways in which this is impacting family lives, mostly because of how children are interacting with it. Some fear, genuinely, that parental guidance is being eroded and, in some cases, usurped by artificial intelligence (AI). And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Technology can be a double-edged sword
For the uninitiated, Alexa, Siri and Google Home are the AI “assistants” that have been introduced by Amazon, Apple and Google respectively; each with its own capabilities and army of devoted fans and critics. At the heart of it all is data, which has been harvested for the past couple of decades by a handful of tech giants able to use our internet histories and habits to “streamline” our experiences and, crucially, target advertising.
When it comes to rearing our young ones, however, technology can be very much the double-edged sword. “A child can now basically converse with a piece of faceless technology,” says Dubai family counsellor Katie Patrick, “and that must seem like the coolest thing in the world for them. But there are drawbacks, as you might expect, and more parents need to be cautious about introducing these gadgets into the home. Too many people have them installed without thinking through all the ramifications, like how their kids will actually learn anything if they get all their homework answers from Alexa.”
And that’s entirely feasible, for the information available from these devices is staggering in its breadth. “The thing is, though,” points out Mark Drayton, a software engineer who divides his time between the United Kingdom and the UAE, “the information that’s dazzling all these users is usually harvested straight from Wikipedia, and we all know how dangerous it can be to rely on that as a source.” He agrees that the technology we’re seeing on the market now is still in its infancy. “Some of what’s waiting in the wings is mind-blowing; things like Alexa are the first baby steps and AI is going to change all our lives sooner than we think.”
For Patrick, removing a child’s requirement to form problem-solving methods when faced with questions or tasks is a slippery slope. “When I was in school [in the mid-1980s], I recall my parents debating whether I should be allowed a calculator,” she recalls. “Can you imagine what it would have been like to have all this information and technology at our disposal when we were studying? More to the point, though, can we honestly say our ability to learn or absorb facts and figures would have been any better because of it? In my experience working with children, both here and in Europe, getting them to enjoy the process of learning and discovering things on their own, through their own research, is by far the best way to prepare them for adult life.”
Embracing technology early on
There’s another school of thought, however, that says it’s best to let children embrace this new tech because it will soon become so embedded in human society that resistance is futile. When you consider that Amazon has, by its own admission, 5,000 people working on Alexa and developing similar products, there’s little point in denying that this new AI “assistance” will be unavoidable in the near future.
“It’s not all bad,” counters Drayton. “Google, just to give one example, is developing tech that will transform the way doctors and nurses treat patients. Using data gathered about patients and their histories, it can accurately predict the chances of a patient’s recovery – well, at least more accurately than most humans can. And, again, this is just the beginning. Experts are saying that countless lives will be saved in the future because of this medical AI, so don’t be too quick to dismiss its usefulness. The pay-off, though, is that more data needs to be gathered for us to benefit, and a lot of people are starting to object to that in really strong terms.”
What we’re dealing with at the moment amounts to little more than a virtual personal assistant. For business use, in particular, the likes of Alexa can be a brilliant tool for increasing productivity and time efficiency because, if it’s properly connected to the right equipment, it really can book you a hotel room, convert units from imperial to metric, and remind you to take your medication and about your pending wedding anniversary.
It will even, if you ask it, place an order for a bouquet of flowers and have it delivered to your significant other. It will adjust the ambient lighting in your living room, check on your car, and let you know if you’ve left the house unlocked – each one a desirable attribute for those with little time and much in the way of tech awareness.
“It’s a bit of a cliche,” admits Patrick, “but there’s nothing wrong with any of this stuff. It’s just what we use it for that can be a problem. When you ask Google to choose what you watch together or listen to as a family, you’re teaching children to rely on computers and making everyday life less human. And human interaction plays a vital role in us becoming balanced and reasonable people.
"Maybe this is all just a gimmick that will fade away once the novelty has worn off, but there is one benefit to the fact that voice recognition and loudspeakers are involved with these things, and that is everyone can hear what’s being asked and what the replies are. Parents might soon get fed up with that, but at least there are no secrets with vulnerable children.”
We’re living in changing times, with ‘smart’ becoming the prefix to almost anything we can think of. And as our homes become more connected, AI will cease to be some fantastical future idea and become like part of the furniture. “There’s a clue in the name,” remarks Drayton. “Artificial. It’s no substitute for actual human intelligence, and its limits are defined by the inputs of the people who are designing and engineering it. The healthy approach with any new technology is to welcome it, but not rely on it too heavily. Because if we stop learning or thinking for ourselves, then society will soon start going backwards. Keep Alexa in her place, everything will be fine.”