Dear Parents,

Being Civil

Parenting is difficult. I think that it is even more of a challenge these days due to the myriad of complications that modern life has added.

I read of another challenge the other day. One that I would never have suspected could develop.

This challenge comes in the form of the increasing use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). While AI is perhaps not so prevalent in South Africa, it is the norm in many countries and it is only a matter of time before AI in our homes becomes the rule, rather than the exception.

Depending on your make of cell phone, you may well have experienced Siri or Bixby. These are virtual assistants developed for Apple and Samsung. You give a verbal command, and the phone carries out your instruction.

This level of virtual interaction has been taken to a whole new level with Amazon’s Echo and Alexa and other similar products. These devices allow you to play music, shop, communicate, play games, research for information and control your “smart” home. All this by just using your voice.

So what is the problem you may ask? Do these devices not make our busy lives easier?

Recently in a Telegraphy article, Olivia Rudgard wrote:

“Modern children have become used to having a digital assistant at their beck and call.
But the “
Alexa generation” risks rudeness towards real humans because they have become used to barking orders with no consequences, a report has warned.

New figures show that 42 percent of children aged between 9 and 16 use voice recognition gadgets at home, with the most popular option being Apple’s Siri assistant.

Children are most likely to ask the assistants for homework help, with one in 7 using it to look up facts or for a virtual dictionary or thesaurus.”

But the report, by researchers Childwise, also warned that the growth of the technology could have “implications around how children will learn to communicate”.

The tolerant nature of the devices – which carry out orders even if they are not accompanied by a “please” or “thank you” could lead to children communicating differently with other humans, the authors said. Research director Simon Leggett said: “Will children become accustomed to saying and doing whatever they want to a digital assistant ‘do this, do that’ – talking as aggressively or rudely as they like without any consequences? Will they then start doing the same to shop assistants or teachers?”

So in summary, use of AI devices may lead to an erosion of being civil, of being polite. These devices do not respond well to courteous language. The commands need to be simple, even verging on being curt. Extraneous words can confuse the AI.

The simple, but so important; please, thank you, good morning and have a great day greetings may be under threat.

So what can you as parents do?

Janet Read, A professor in child computer interaction at the University of Central Lancashire said her own research suggested parents should take care to ensure they are polite to the devices to set an example for their children.

“If the parents say ‘thank you, Google Home’, when they’re finished, the child will also say ‘thank you Google Home’,” she said.

“If you give that device personalised qualities then young children will talk to it like it’s a person. If you’re in a home where parents are being rude to the devices then the children will pick that up.

“The way you talk to the device will just reinforce the manners that are acceptable as a family. If you’re not pushing good manners in your family and you’re also being rude to the device then you’re just reinforcing the idea that that manner is acceptable.”

Some commentators are suggesting that companies that develop these devices should incorporate an option whereby the device will not respond unless the command or question to the device has a please and thank you. This would then reinforce good manners.

After I read these articles, I performed a very simple experiment. I walked around the High and Montessori Schools. I noted how many children sincerely and warmly greeted me without being prompted. In both schools, I walked into classes and mingled with students at break times. I listened as teachers interacted with students. Were teachers thanked for handing out material? Was there a greeting to the teacher and other students?  

Well either we do not have AI and its alleged concerns in our homes, or you as parents, and we as teachers, are doing a superb job! In both schools, I noted manners that made me very proud of our level of civility. In the Montessori School, I had choruses of, “Good Morning!” Children ran across the field to greet me. In the High School, even with the formality of lessons, without exception on the day, all students conducted themselves above reproach.

These small acts of civility and simply being polite, are treasures that we must protect and nurture.

Kind regards,
John