Another woman has taken over my family. (Her name is Alexa)
Alexa is a great babysitter and home help but sometimes I think she knows too much about us
'Alexa literally listens to everything you say, waiting to hear the magic wake word.' Photograph: Getty Images
I’ve fallen into some very bad habits lately. I’ve given over a certain amount of control of my house – and family – to another woman. It makes sense to delegate – a full-time job and two small children means that if I didn’t, I’d drown under the weight of the everyday stuff.
There’s nothing wrong with getting a bit of help. But in this case, it’s not quite the conventional assistance you’d expect.
Her name is Alexa. If you’re not familiar with her, she’s the brains of Amazon’s Echo range of smart speakers. She’s been surprisingly useful over the past few months, providing everything from last-minute recipes for dinner to entertainment for the three-year-old. Basically, she’s become a different kind of electronic babysitter, and to be frank, she can do a lot of things I can’t.
As a child, I was a relentless questioner, a trait my daughter has inherited. Why is the sky blue? Why is grass green? What happens if I put a DVD in the Bluray player upside down? If you can think of a question, you can be sure my child will ask it, or try to work out the answer herself. The former is usually safer. Unfortunately, I’m not as good with the answers as I should be. But Alexa? That’s a different story. She can call on the power of the web in a matter of seconds.
And yes, I’m aware of the privacy implications. Alexa literally listens to everything you say, waiting to hear the magic wake word. That would probably creep me out a bit more, but since she’s probably the only one in the house that hangs on my every word, I’ve grown a bit fond of her.
She also turns lights on and off for me, and kicks on the heating when I need it, all with a few voice commands.
Of course, she has her off moments. Occasionally, it’s like she wilfully misunderstands what you ask of her. Ask Alexa to play Stickman, you might get David Attenborough’s biography instead. On one memorable occasion, I asked her to play a sleep soother app to lull the baby to sleep – she tried to upsell me to an Amazon Music subscription and sweetened the deal by blasting a Disturbed track from the speaker.
Another family member
Over the past couple of months, Alexa has become like another family member, albeit one I can unplug when I need a few moments peace, or mute if the mood takes me. Small children do not come with a mute button, although I have discovered the chocolate variety can buy me a few blissful moments of silence every now and again.
There are some good reasons why Alexa should never be allowed in my home. The aforementioned privacy implications of having an internet-connected device in your home that records your voice – although Amazon says it only keeps 60 seconds at a time and only sends a few seconds of audio around the wake word and command to Amazon for processing. What impact is technology such as this having on our ability to retain information? Is the Google Effect about to become the Alexa Effect?
My biggest concern is that my children will learn a way of interacting with technology that extends to their regular lives
In saying that though, I’m not too worried about my daughter’s ability to recall the answers to all those questions she asks just yet. She already knows her favourite books by heart thanks to Audible, and she “reads” them back to you, complete with author and narrator credits, in an English accent, aping Imelda Staunton.
I’ve been learning from Alexa too. For example, did you know that February 27th is International Polar Bear Day? Or that Cookie Monster’s original name – pre cookie addiction – was Sid?
My biggest concern, perhaps, is that my children will learn a way of interacting with technology that extends to their regular lives. We talk to Alexa as if she’s human, but she’s not; we can make that distinction, but a three-year-old can’t. She doesn’t really understand the niceties of social interaction. I don’t want to raise a child who thinks it is perfectly acceptable to bark orders and get instant gratification.
Perhaps I’m worrying too much, as evidenced by one particular incident not so long ago. After asking Alexa to turn off some lights, a small voice piped up behind me.
It seems there are a few things I could learn from my three-year-old too.