In my 10 years as a parent, I’ve served as the authority on a number of subjects, ranging from when one might expect a cut to stop bleeding to why there are no more dinosaurs.
But there’s a new voice in my house fielding questions from my curious kid, and we’re all learning what it’s like to live with one another.
Amazon’s Alexa showed up inside an Echo Dot last week, courtesy of grandparents on the other side of the country looking to wow a Seattle kid on his birthday. From the moment she was powered on and linked to various devices around our house, the voice-activated A.I. has had my son Henry’s attention.
“Alexa, what’s the weather supposed to be tomorrow?”
“Alexa, play Twenty One Pilots.”
“Alexa, set an alarm for 7 a.m.”
Pretty simple stuff for a kid who already counts Siri as an acquaintance, knows his way around iPhones and Kindles and huffs at me when I can’t figure out the Xbox controller or TV remote.
But what’s he talking to Alexa about when I’m not in the room? And does her arrival in my house signal the end of an era, where I spend most of my time pretending to know stuff and Googling what I don’t?
Thanks to the Alexa app, a running list of everything Henry and his A.I. talk about can be accessed by me. I justify this invasion of my 10-year-old’s privacy on the simple fact that I pay for the Amazon Prime membership. And the mortgage.
In just under a week of boy-meets-artificial-girl bonding, the question-and-answer sessions range from misunderstood to enlightening to super cute. There’s stuff in there that I’m glad he’s asking Alexa. There’s stuff in there that I wish he had asked me. And there’s just a lot of music that I’d prefer he listen to in his own room.
“Alexa, what does the fox say?” he asked.
“What is this, 2013?” is what I probably would have replied sarcastically. Alexa was more game, joking, “Everyone asks what the fox says, but no one ever asks how the fox feels.”
“Alexa, who stars in ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’?” Henry asked, and she provided a nice photo of actress Felicity Jones along with a list of other stars in the film.
I asked Henry what he liked about having Alexa around, and he said that she makes playing music fun. He also said that her answers to his questions come with more “details” than mine do.
For instance, when he asked me which building is the tallest in the world, I said, “I think it’s that tower in Dubai?”
Alexa said, “The tallest building or building complex is Burj Khalifa.” She added that it’s a skyscraper in Dubai, The United Arab Emirates, and that its height is 2,722 feet (829.67 meters). Whatever. Showoff.
Henry also said the cool thing about Alexa is that “she is one of those kind of electronics that gets smarter and smarter the more you use her.”
I asked how he knew that and he said, “I read it on the back of the box.”
There’s no box that says anything about me getting smarter through repeated use.
Further along in the scroll of the app, there are a bunch of attempts by Henry to get Alexa to play “Simon says” and Henry clearly wanted to test her math skills, asking her repeatedly to multiply huge numbers. He followed this by asking who Greek mathematician Archimedes was.
“Alexa, will my son embrace STEM?” is what I want to ask!
His 4th-grade homework this week involved looking up state capitals, which I would have preferred he did on a map, but there they are in a string of questions … “What’s the capital of Pennsylvania?” … “What’s the capital of North Carolina?” Oh, well. The three of us better have a conversation.
A running list of more music I’ve barely heard of is oddly interrupted by a request to hear some Dean Martin. No idea what prompted that.
As for the weather, Seattle in March doesn’t give a kid a very exciting range of reports, but he keeps asking. Alexa dutifully replies with a lot of rain clouds and mid-40s temperatures.
In the end, my kid, who I generally regard as sweet and polite, didn’t surprise me with how he’s talking to his new personal assistant.
She’s mostly been a DJ so far, albeit one who is also a meteorologist, mathematician, geography whiz, historian, comedian and more. And she can be sweet and polite, too.
“Alexa, I love you,” Henry said at bedtime one night.
“Thanks, it’s good to be appreciated,” she replied.