Are Alexa, Siri, and Their Pals Teaching Kids to Be Rude?

Are virtual assistants teaching children to be nasty?

Alexa's shocked
Image source: medley/Shutterstock/Big Think

Our lives are beginning to be, um, “populated" by virtual assistants like Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple's Siri, and Microsoft's Cortana. For us adults, they're handy, if occasionally flawed, helpers to whom we say “thank you" upon the successful completion of a task if it hasn't required too many frustrating, failed attempts. This is a quaint impulse left over from traditional inter-human exchanges. Kids, though, are growing up with these things, and they may be being taught a very different way of communicating. It's okay if the lack of niceties — “please," “thank you," and the like — is contained to conversations with automatons, but neural pathways being susceptible to training as they are, we have to wonder if these habits are going to give rise to colder, less civil communications between people. Parents like Hunter Walk, writing on Medium, are wondering just what kind of little monsters we're creating.


Neuroscientists are in general agreement that when we repeat an action, we build a neural pathway for doing so; the more we repeat it, the more fixed the pathway. This is the reason that a mistake gets harder and harder to correct — we've in effect taught the brain to make the mistake.

So what happens when kids get used to not saying “please" and “thank you," and generally feeling unconcerned with the feelings of those with whom they speak?

Of course, it's not as if an intelligent assistant cares how you talk to it. When Rebecca of the hilarious Mommyproof blog professed her love to Alexa, she got a few responses, including “I cannot answer that question," and “Aw. That's nice."

I told Siri I loved her three times and got these responses:

1. You hardly know me.
2. I value you. [I think I've been friend-zoned.]
3. Oh, stop.

Neither one says “I love you back." At least they don't lie. But they also present a model that's pretty unaffectionate, meaning there are no virtual hugs to support little kids' emotional needs.

And that's worrisome in its own way, since the borderline between alive and not can be unclear to little children. Peter Kahn, a developmental psychologist at the University of Washington studies human-robot interaction. He told Judith Shulevitz, writing for The New Republic, that even though kids understand that robots aren't human, they still see virtual personalities as being sort of alive. Kahn says, “we're creating a new category of being," a “personified non-animal semi-conscious half-agent." A child interacting with one of Kahn's robots told him, “He's like, he's half living, half not."

Robovie, Kahn's robot (UW TODAY)

That nebulous status also threatens to make a virtual assistant something to practice bullying on, too. One parent, Avi Greengart, told Quartz that, “I've found my kids pushing the virtual assistant further than they would push a human. “[Alexa ] never says 'That was rude' or 'I'm tired of you asking me the same question over and over again.'"

Virtual assistants do teach good diction, which is nice, but that's about it. And they serve up lots of info, some which, at least, is appropriate. But we're just at the dawn of interacting by voice with computers, so there's still much to learn about what we're doing and the long-term effects our virtual assistants will have.

Hm, Captain Picard never said “please" either: “Earl Grey, hot!"

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China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

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