The House Robot

Today our Amazon Echo arrived.  Aside from the practical stuff it offers to do (voice command search, unit conversions, plenty if IFTTT options, shopping lists) it also brings music and a pretty cool, if a little off balanced, speaker. It’ll be a great addition to the household gadgets when we finally figure it all out.

Better than any of that though is watching the firstborn figure it out.  His mom and I told him we were going to get a robot for the house.  Which it sort of is and calling it a robot as opposed to a ‘house controlling AI’ feels better; we watched Eureka, house controlling AIs could get clingy. Mentioning the word ‘robot’ around a five year old is a sure fire way to get their attention.  He has spent the last week ecstatic about a robot coming to the house and asking about it fairly regularly.

When he arrived home and saw the black cylinder on the counter with its glowing circle, he did not know what to think.  It doesn’t look like a robot from any of his books.

“Ask Alexa a question,” he was prompted.

“What’s your name, robot?” He asked.

We spent a few minutes going over how to actually have a question answered.  Before long he was getting weather updates, figuring out when sunset was, what the news of the day held; all pretty fun stuff and the machine was able to pick up on most of his still very awkward speech patterns and language choices the first time around.

Attention waned after some time and he opted to go play outside while I finished putting dinner together.  He and his mom started the garden for the year, his brother tossed dirt from his sand box and the evening continued just like countless evenings before.

As I pulled a pan from the oven I hear the unmistakable stomping of my five year old running.

“Alexa!” He screamed at the machine, “tell me a joke please.”

The box replied with a quip about sleepy bicycles and I laughed.  Then the boy laughed and asked for another joke.  Something about skeletons.  Another good laugh.

“Alexa!” he shouted again, making sure the machine could hear him (it could, it has an incredible sensor), “that was funny!”  He turned and ran back outside.

So there I stood.  This is how kids and machines interact now.  I remember trying to figure out how to properly install the red, white and yellow of a VGA cable (I made it over complicated), or getting the Super Scope to register on the screen.  Now machines have names and talk back.  They have personalities and names and interact in realistic ways.

The five year old asked the machine if he could go ride his bike.  I thought this meant that the machine was viewed as authority figure, but it turns out that if the question is not presented well, or there’s too much pause between the word ‘Alexa’ and the question itself the tube makes a bleep-bloop sound my son interpreted as a “yuh-huh” positive response to the question.  So he started to go ride his bike.  It was fine, and we would have said yes if asked. But following the robot taking over our parental respsonibility, we discussed with the firstborn the difference between an Alexa question and a Mommy-and-Daddy question.  We had a serious conversation about what the robot can answer and what mom and dad hold domain over.

It was a weird night.

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