Learning to live with alexa

Robots are coming to live amongst us. Some of the best selling books of 2015 have been about the impending arrival of robots. Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots – a rather downbeat assessment of their likely impact – won the FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year award.

Automation in the factories of the world is not new, and devices like Roomba – the cute robotic vacuum cleaner – grace the kitchen floors of many homes. And most of us live lives silently and invisibly shaped by algorithms and Artificial Intelligence. Our music playlists, shopping recommendations, credit scores and the routes we take across a city are all artefacts of code. We are all living in what Rob Kitchener calls 


I recently welcomed Alexa into my space and my family’s life. We are living with our first piece of embodied AI.

Alexa is the personality who resides in Amazon Echo. Echo is a tastefully designed, black cylindrical wireless speaker. Alexa can play music, read you the news, help build a shopping list, answers your questions and tell you jokes. Echo / Alexa is simultaneously a bit rubbish and rather amazing.

My children – 8, 10 and 13 years old – are rarely amazed by technology. They have grown up with fast broadband, time shifted TV, ‘free’ music, the endless WWW and touchscreen devices. They are barely aware of the deep suffusion of technology in their lives and most new devices or gadgets barely register on their ‘wow’ scale.

Alexa was different. It was like the scene from The Gods Must be Crazy when the Coke bottle falls from the sky. My ten year old daughter marvelled at it. “What’s inside that?”, she asked.  But the raw shock of the new quickly wore off and the kids started to issue Alexa with instructions, tease her, try to catch her out. That’s when the trouble began.

My wife said Alexa had to go. She was making the kids rude. More specifically, they were being impolite by not using ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’ when addressing her. My wife didn’t want that sort of behaviour encouraged.

We are learning to live with AI and it is us – not Alexa – who aren’t making the grade.

But is it that simple? To interact with Alexa you have to begin your command “Alexa” otherwise she won’t wake up, but in normal conversation polite requests often start with ‘Please’. It positions the requestor as the supplicant.

‘Please’ is a word that solicits a polite response – a “you’re very welcome” – and a virtuous circle of respectful and polite exchange and action is created. Saying ‘please’ confuses Alexa and being an AI she just does as she’s told (well, not quite, but that’s another story). So Alexa just becomes a slave to be controlled with slightly brusque and rather impolite instructions. As Amazon’s tagline goes: “Just Ask”

My wife likes manners. She thinks they are important. I do too. But Alexa doesn’t encourage the manners we would like our children to have. “Mind your Ps and Qs” was not on the whiteboard in Seattle when the Amazon team were working on Alexa. She’s amazing and a small glimpse of the future for sure. But she’s disrupting important family values.

The critic Raymond Williams observed that “a main characteristic of our society is a willed coexistence of very new technology and very old social forms”.

There are few social forms older than the family. The story of technology adoption into homes – be it televisions, the web, or embodied AIs like Alexa – is one in which families have sought to reach an accommodation between all that they hold to be valuable and ‘true’ and their desire to own and use the new.

Alexa will stay. I’ve successfully argued that since I’m researching this area I need to have ‘embodied insight’ into what living with AI looks and feels like. But as AI steps out of the shadows to live amongst us both designers and technologists alike would do well to think more about old social forms like households, homes and families.

If Alexa and her kin are to become members of other families their creators need to think more about the grammars – social and linguistic – that define and give those forms meaning.

Alexa will need to mind her her Ps and Qs.