When Amazon’s Alexa first arrived in my house, my daughter was 8 months old. I’d had reservations about welcoming an artificial intelligence into the domestic space – did I really want a robot to hear her first words? – but I certainly wasn’t a luddite. My house had already been infested by digital technology, from the sound system to the smoke detector. Siri was a constant companion in my pocket. And by that time, I’d spent more than a decade studying and broadcasting about social psychology in a digital world, and how influence happens online.
But there was something about this constantly listening black obelisk in the kitchen that was unsettling. I couldn’t put my finger on it until one afternoon, when I was sitting on the floor playing with my toddler.
“Alexa,” I said into the air. I wanted to listen to some music. “Play FIP on TuneIn.”
My daughter, who hadn’t been particularly interested in the world around her until this second, looked at me, and then looked at the air in the direction I’d spoken. And it occurred to me that I’d only ever spoken to another human or animal while she was in the room. But talking into the air, to a thing with a name but no body immediately became normal in her little growing brain.
Catching myself in the surreal situation I found myself in, I followed quickly with, “Alexa, thank you,” as politeness is an important part of my parenting – even to robots. But the machine said nothing. It was silent. I said it again, louder. Siri’s script, after all, had several responses that I liked scrolling through. But nothing. Silence.
At that moment, I realised that I’d welcomed an artificial intelligence into my house that was not only always listening and future-shock weird, but one that was rude as well.
It may feel like digital technology is ushering in an astonishing number of social transformations, but what I’ve found through my research is that the internet isn’t doing anything to us: it’s a communication technology that connects humans to humans, and ultimately it’s we humans who are doing things to one another. Innovations simply make the edges of our social contracts visible, and finds the cases where what we assume to be received wisdom – like politeness – are not.
From living better with robots to the communications milieu that normalises “alternative facts”, psychology is an ideal window to explain the modern world. And that’s why I’m always trying to push its boundaries. Because as I do, I discover the human truisms that we have the opportunity to revisit and to change.
Dr Aleks Krotoski is an author and broadcaster whose first book, “Untangling the Web: What the Internet Is Doing To You” was released in 2013. She is delighted that Alexa has been updated and now has many ways to say “you’re welcome”.