Parents: Don't teach kids to be polite to machines

NOTE: This blog post has been superceeded by a much more developed and researched version I wrote for Fast Company. Please read "The case against teaching kids to be polite to Alexa" here. 

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Google announced "pretty please," a feature for the Google Home virtual assistant appliance (and third-party Assistant-compatible devices) that encourages children to speak politely to the appliance.  

When kids issue a command, such as: "Tell me the weather," the feature says: "Say the magic word," and gives the weather only when children say "please." The feature is a parental option, not a hard-wired requirement.

This is a terrible idea, a toxic trend.

Children should be polite to people, and respectful of adults. They should be kind to animals. And kids should be gentle with robots, not because robots have feelings, but because a robot is property that belongs to someone.

But we should not teach children to be polite to virtual assistants.

In fact, early exposure to virtual assistant appliances like Google Home is a "teachable moment" -- a moment when we can teach kids that A.I. that speaks and sounds like a person is not, in fact, a person. It has no feelings. It's an object, like the toaster.

Many adults feel the impulse to be polite to virtual assistants. And adults can feel uneasy hearing children be abusive or commanding toward them. This is a human impulse, and one to be examined and overcome. 

Kids need to learn that it's OK to be polite to virtual assistants. And it's OK to be rude. It doesn't matter. The object has no feelings, and no harm is done. 

In fact, when kids or adults use Google Search, they don't say "please." They issue a command and the servers obey. Just because engineers have constructed a natural sounding voice to interact with doesn't change the reality that a human is using a tool. 

Worse, the be-polite-to-virtual-assistant trend places machines in positions of authority over children.

What we're teaching them is that the machines legitimately may judge us, shape us and control us. It's the worst possible lesson to teach a generation that will encounter very sophisticated A.I. in their lifetimes.

Now is the time to teach them that A.I "personalities" are mere tools, not people.

Google isn't doing anything wrong here. It's a weird problem. And, in fact, it's off-putting for adults to hear children berate, insult or be rude to a voice that sounds like a human adult.

But this is a cultural fork in the road, and we need to choose the right path. We can teach kids that A.I. are sentient beings to be obeyed and respected. Or we can teach them that A.I. "personalities" are a constructed delusion.

Don't teach your kids to obey machines.