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Amazon Echo. Image source Wikimedia commons

You shouldn’t worry if you forget your please and thank you. Alexa will put up with just about anything with tolerance. But while artificial intelligence technology can blow past such indignities, parents are still irked by their kids’ poor manners when interacting with Alexa, the assistant that lives inside the Amazon Echo.

“I’ve found my kids pushing the virtual assistant further than they would push a human,” says Avi Greengart, a tech analyst and father of five who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey. “[Alexa] never says ‘That was rude’ or ‘I’m tired of you asking me the same question over and over again.’” Perhaps she should, he thinks.

Alexa app. Image source Wikimedia commons

When Amazon released its internet-connected speaker in 2014, the world was puzzled. It was able to do work in a smart home by adding events to your calendar, summon an Uber, even tell knock-knock jokes. It became a very curious design. Google and Apple is reportedly designing their own version powered by Google home and Siri respectively.

Mimicking their parents, they quickly discover that if they start a sentence with “Alexa,” the speaker will perk up and (for the most part) do as they say. Amazon didn’t keep children in mind during the designing. It becomes child friendly even when the child does not know reading or any such commands.

Some of the questions Alexa can be asked are:

  • Alexa, tell me a knock-knock joke.
  • Alexa, how do you spell forest?
  • Alexa, what’s 17 times 42?

The commands given are usually simple and straightforward but doesn’t exactly reward niceties like “please.” For parents trying to drill good manners into their children, listening to their kids boss Alexa around can be of great concern. “One of the responsibilities of parents is to teach your kids social graces,” says Greengart, “and this is a box you speak to as if it were a person who does not require social graces.” It’s this combination that worries Hunter Walk, a tech investor in San Francisco. In a blog post, he described the Amazon Echo as “magical” while expressing fears it’s “turning our daughter into a raging asshole.”

Hanover Kurzweil, who lives in San Francisco, says Alexa had a hard time comprehending her four-year-old son when he tried summoning the speaker with “Awexa.” But after a month or two of working on his pronunciation, his l’s started ringing clear as a bell, she says.

Apple’s Siri. Image source Wikimedia commons

Not all parents are so worried about the implications of their kids’ mannerisms when interacting with a speaker, though. This is, after all, a “can that sits on a table,” says Holly Petersen, a mother of two who lives in Minnesota. They find ‘unintentional aggressiveness’ in the tone of her command. Though Petersen believes her children, ages five and seven, know the difference between bot and human. “It is important for my kids to be able to empathize with people and read emotions off people and be polite with people,” she says. But “Alexa doesn’t have feelings, and I don’t want her over-personified.”

Still, with the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence, a debate is emerging around how humans should treat bots. Mortensen argues that “you are worse off if you treat your machines in a demeaning kind of way.” Mortensen created the calendar-scheduling assistant called He doesn’t correct them though since they “are beyond the age of where I teach them decency and courtesy.”

But other parents haven’t given up. Manu Kumar, a father of two and founder of investment firm K9 Ventures in Palo Alto, California, has attempted one tactic with his four-year-old with limited success. “I have told my son that if he doesn’t say ‘thank you’ or ‘please’ that Alexa will stop listening to him.” He too believes that what matters is the importance of being nice. He says that if Alexa doesn’t care about how we talk to her, other people around us are going to experience how we interact with it.

People are longing for a kid or family mode where Alexa responds only after hearing the keyword. Of course, that would mean parents, too, would be beholden to these courtesies. Such a mode “would probably be good for us,” muses Hanover Kurzweil.

No matter what, an Amazon representative declined to agree to what these parents have to say. She also wrote an email saying “I think I’d like to use that with my daughter :)”
-by Vrushali Mahajan, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter-Vrushali Mahajan
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