Shouting out commands to Alexa, Siri, or your quasi-sentient-personal-assistant of choice seems mostly (mostly?) harmless, but watch out: You might fuck up your kid!
NBC News’ Wynne Parry interviewed Sherry Turkle, an MIT psychologist and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age who warns that our dependence and affection for these robots can be detrimental to communication skills, especially in young children. According to Turkle, artificial relationships between child and bot can interfere with a child’s ability to connect with others and may negatively affect a child’s empathy development.
Turkle told NBC News that the illusion of personality—which she calls “‘as if’ empathy”—displayed by these robots confuses kids.
If children learn to respond to “as if” empathy, we are not preparing them for the complexity, nuance, negotiations of true empathy, true listening. There are skills of listening, of putting oneself in the place of the other, that are required when two human beings try to deeply understand each other.
Not only can’t you practice relational skills by talking to machines, but you make negative progress. For example, a machine always has a response ready. You never have to wait, to attend to silences or to what one young woman I interviewed called the “boring bits” in conversation. We can forget the kind of listening and the kind of talking about our feelings that real conversation requires.
This differs vastly from children playing with stuffed animals, which Turkle notes do not “make any pretense to having its own emotion,” allowing children to project emotion onto them in a healthy manner.
For an example of an unhealthy projection, Turkle provided an troubling anecdote involving a teenage girl:
One of the stories I tell in “Reclaiming Conversation” is of a mother and daughter. The mother, 40, has a 10-year-old, Tara, who tends to be a perfectionist, always the “good girl.” Tara expresses anger to Siri that she doesn’t show to her parents or friends.
Stephanie wonders if this is “perhaps a good thing, certainly a more honest conversation” than Tara is having with the adults in her life. But what Tara is having with Siri is not a conversation at all. No one is listening. My worst fear: If Tara can “be herself” only with a robot, she may grow up believing that only an object can tolerate her truth.
Turkle suggests that parents encourage kids to play with more traditional toys and not treat personal assistants or robots as pals, even in jest. She also hopes parents stress to their children that these bots aren’t freakin’ people. In other words, give your kid a fucking teddy bear to play with, not a damn robot.
Alexa, don’t fuck up my future spawn.