…or perhaps not naming digital assistants would be better.
The weather was glorious in the UK on Easter Monday, breaking the record for the warmest Easter on record. The whole country went out to the beach, local parks, stately homes and other visitor attractions and as a dad with two young ‘uns, I inevitably ended up in a children’s playground watching over swings, slides and the odd scrape. It was a happy family moment.
And then I heard a voice going, “Alexa, Alexa!” At first, I thought was someone talking to the app on their phone but then I realised this was a mother calling her toddler daughter. OMG! What were they thinking?
Now it’s easy to criticise the parents for their choice of name but perhaps Alexa was their favourite for years and then it got hijacked by an uncaring Silicon Valley giant.
There’s another point here and I feel slightly vindicated. My Amazon Echo is programmed to respond to “Computer”, not because I’m a Star Trek geek, but because I’m concerned about the anthropomorphism of technology – that’s making something seem human when it’s not.
The issue is how we treat machines compared to people and I think it’s particularly relevant when all of the digital assistants – Alexa, Siri and Cortana – speak with a female voice. How many of us have shouted “Alexa, shut up!” when it blurts out irrelevant nonsense, and I’ve heard “Stupid woman” addressed to an in-car GPS asking for u-turn on motorway. I’m concerned that these abusive behaviours will cross over into real life, as it were. Will boys think that it’s ok to yell “Shut up!” at girls?
This problem is only going get worse as the assistants become smarter and robots more life-like. Machines should be thought of as the tools they are. We need to consider the future consequences of pretending that they are more.