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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Alexa, Can I watch TV now?

by Priyanka Raha ~ July 26, 2018

Good digital citizenship habits

Last week we talked about the importance of niceties when interacting with Alexa.  And if you read that article you know that Alexa is a representation of all voice activated A.I. systems. Should we say all of her cousins in the same family. 

Technological evolution is happening so fast that it has left us - parents, educators and concerned adults feeling a bit unbalanced. We haven’t had a chance to gather long range data about the impact of interaction with Alexa on kids. 

Psychologists and A.I. experts are working round the clock to decipher, as much as they can, the effects of humanoid helpers in our lives, especially in young kids. Peter Kahn, a psychologist at the University of Washington, has done research on how children perceive the humanoid helpers. Parents shouldn’t worry about their child treating their friends like they do Alexa, at least not in a direct way. 

The consequences are slightly more subtle and complicated than that.

Indulgence Dilemma

Alexa complies to requests without delay and at all times during the day. Interaction with the virtual assistant leads to instant gratification over continuous conditioning - when you are subjected to a given scenario repeatedly how you respond becomes habit even outside the situation. But that has been true for all technological gadgets, right? What is interesting about Alexa is that she does this 24-hours a day and through a screenless voice activated system. This means she is available to be controlled by toddlers who have not yet learnt to operate a hand-held digital device. 

Are we amplifying our kids’ tirade of ‘I want it now’?

Anthropomorphize Alexa

A slightly deeper concern is about imparting human-like features to our virtual assistants. Manners and etiquette teach our kids a sense of respect for the sensibilities of other people. In encouraging our kids to say ‘please’ are we suggesting that Alexa needs to be respected for  doing something that we asked her to do? Does that mean that Alexa has rights, and that one of these rights is to say ‘no’? 

Are we teaching our kids that machines have sensibilities?

Robotic Nicety

Here is another thought - telling children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to machines inculcates a robotic or mechanical like lifelessness to the rendition. I am afraid to say, I find the argument compelling that teaching kids to treat a piece of software, however intelligent that is, like you would treat people opens up questions about differentiating animate and inanimate objects. 

Are we, in the process, teaching our kids to run through the polite words like courtesy routines without the importance meaning, effect or purpose?

None of the above is of course the intent of bringing in a humanoid helper into the house. Having a virtual assistant is powerful, fun and certainly the future. I am not for reversing the wheel ever. What I want for my kids is a world where they can thrive and not just survive. 

If you have been reading our blogs, you know this by now that we, at PopSmartKids, are all for mentoring and not monitoring. This is true for every aspect of growing up, and this is especially imperative when it comes to navigating the increasingly quasi-digital world around us.

If we let Alexa teach our kids good habits, can we let our kids ask Alexa any of the following questions.
Alexa, Can I watch TV now?
Alexa, Is it bedtime yet?
Alexa, what is 12 times 24?

If your answer is no, then where do we draw the line? What is allowed and what is not? Also, the big question is how should we decide that?

Next week we are going to make an attempt to answer some of these questions or at least discuss some of the ways that we can help our next generation apprehend the human-humanoid interaction.

Watch this space next week.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

I, Alexa

by Priyanka Raha ~ July 19, 2018

Should you say 'Please' and 'Thank you' to Alexa?

Good digital citizenship habits

I say Alexa because I am so used to hearing it a number of times during the day at home but really this could be for any digital assistant that you may have - Google home, HomePod etc. So if you are reading this simply replace Alexa with your assistant of choice. 

Now let's talk about how we interact with our digital assistants

This is a 3-part series. In part one, I want to talk about if we should be polite to our digital assistants? Should you say 'please' and 'thank you' to Alexa?

At home my kids have a lot of fun asking Alexa a ton of questions:
Alexa, what is the weather today? 
Alexa, what are volcanoes? 
Alexa, sing Believer. 

They love how she can magically burst into a song and be a know-it-all or mention whether it's going to be sunny. For the most part, she does a good job of complying to all of these requests. The irony hasn't been lost on me that I am referring to Alexa as 'she'.

Now there are more than a few occasions when it's not an ideal scenario. We hear 'I am sorry, I don't understand the question'. Apparently this is Alexa's most uttered phrase. In a nutshell, this happens when Alexa didn't understand the words either because there was noise interference or due to the lexicon. I am not going to dive more than that into why that is or what are the ways that this can be avoided.

I am here to discuss what happens after Alexa has spoken those words.

Here is how it goes after that. My kids would blurt out one of the following phrases.
'Oh come on.'
'Alexa, you don't know anything.'
'Mommy, she is not very smart, is she?'
And the extreme (I think) is - 'Alexa, you are dumb'

I would retort back saying, 'That is not a nice thing to say!’ My kids would promptly remind me that Alexa is not a person, so it is okay. Is it though? 

Kids learn behavior through repetitive conditioning and practice. Will they remember to not say these things if they run into a similar scenario in a more social layout? Will they remember to interact responsibly over an email or social media in the future? Will this affect in a not-so-positive way in inculcating good digital citizenship habits? 

I know we are probably far away from a scenario of humanoids walking around amongst us with indiscernible features and functions to us humans. But we are certainly getting closer and closer to having more virtual assistants becoming infused with our homes, cars and accessories. I think empathy should be an obligation in the digital world, especially when we are interacting with our humanoid helpers. It is up to us adults to help children conceptualize virtual assistants in a healthy way.

Amazon is certainly playing its part in this quest. It has recently launched a kids version of Alexa, they are calling it Echo Dot Kids. It is powered by kid-friendly content, easy-to-use parental controls and can call kids to dinner or tell them it's bedtime. What is remarkable is if kids add please to their question, Alexa adds positive reinforcement by mentioning, 'By the way, thanks for asking so nicely'

This is all very encouraging, it really is. But does this mean that we as parents or educators can rest easy and have no role to play? Experts at the crossroads of pediatrics, psychology and A.I. say there is a lot we don't know about how virtual assistants might affect young, developing minds and the effects are more subtle than saying 'please' and 'thank you'.

Wait, it is not all bleak. I certainly love my Alexa and my kids think she is pretty cool, except for when she doesn't understand but that is the beauty of A.I. - she will get better. For now, as parents we can take proactive steps to help children better understand and interact with our Alexas. 

Next week, I am going to dive deep into the delicate nature of what are the not-so-explicit effects of the likes of Alexa, Siri and Cortana in our lives. 

Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Are digital apps helping overcome the language barrier?

by Shikha Das Shankar ~ July 12, 2018

Digital Apps that foster engagement

An overcrowded, concrete classroom with rows of children sitting on wooden benches and repeating sentences is my earliest memory of learning a language. The monotony of the daily classroom exercise made it seem like children were chanting instead of learning. This technique of imparting language skills was a manifestation of the audio-lingual method of learning based on repetition and memorization of sentences until the student can use it spontaneously. Understanding grammar or use of a native language was not part of the learning process.

Decades later, learning multiple languages has become common, easier and thankfully, fun. Hundreds of eLearning platforms and smartphone apps enable you to learn a language in the comfort of your home. Duolingo, Mosalingua, Busuu and Memrise are just a few popular language-learning apps for adults. The popularity of digitally learning a language brought with it a wave of language-learning apps for children too; an area I am now treading my way around quite unexpectedly.

Our family is bilingual, and all of us switch between speaking English and Hindi, a language commonly spoken in India, with ease. I thought my job was done as far as teaching languages was concerned. The school along with some support from us at home would take care of it. I was in for a rude shock when my husband’s new job relocated us to a city in south Florida after seven years in the Seattle area. This cross-country move was more like an upheaval in our lives and was a lot of hard work but we were ready for most of it.

What we were not ready for was that in this predominantly Spanish-speaking area, not knowing the language was beginning to be a hindrance. Never did I think that my kids would be unable to talk to other kids in the park because of the language gap, or that I would have to use hand actions to explain my question about garbage collection to my neighbor. All preschools in the area are bilingual, people complimented my daughter’s unicorn headband in Spanish, and I got looks of bewilderment when I said, “I don’t understand what you are saying”.

Spanish is the default language here and learning it became priority.

My intention was to introduce my kids to the new language in a fun and interactive way. The digital space is a treasure trove for learning resources for children and language apps have far exceeded expectations. So I was certain an app or two from the plethora of language learning apps would be useful.

The apps we have used are engaging and easy to use for the kids as well as grown-ups. We are hooked on to Endless Spanish and Gus on the Go. The kids (and I) have been quick to pick up many words and sounds. Later on, the option of a more comprehensive app like Rosetta Stone which uses voice-enabled technology to help perfect your accent, or Studycat, which combines conventional learning techniques along with fun games, will help us advance in the learning process. 

Whether they are able to learn to read, write or talk in Spanish exclusively by the use of digital technology remains to be seen. For now the apps have set the ball rolling in the right direction by creating interest and building familiarity with a new language, which makes for a good start. 

So when it comes to living in this multilingual new world, is digital learning technique the way to go?


Shikha Das Shankar is a storyteller. Multitasking dragon slayer mom. Happy hiker. When not writing, she loves hiking with her favorite trio—the son, the daughter and the husband or cooking her favorite foods in her de-stressing zone, the kitchen.