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In a post-truth world where to ‘Confirm Humanity’ is to tick a check-box that says, ‘I am not a robot’, the machine interpretation of ‘humanity’, ‘truth’, ‘empathy’, ‘humour’ and other innately human traits stands to have greater influence on our understanding of life than we might like. As the mother of a primary-school age girl and a pre-school boy, I’m constantly thinking about the influence and impact their interactions with technology and the internet have on their plastic minds, their psychology, and their growing sense of self.

A couple of weeks back, we bought a Google Home and with that our ‘House of Technology’ expanded to include a new enabler/disabler (the jury is out). I have some issues to work through with having Google Home parked in the corner of our kitchen. Put aside for one moment the weirdness of introducing a Voice UI to our environment. It had a near-immediate impact on how we speak to each other, “OK, Mummy—tell me your plan and the weather and your journey to work for today.” Never mind being in control of the Sonos, with Google Home, we had an insane hour of verbal battling as each family member sought to gain control of what we were listening to. Even the three year old got involved, “OK, Doodgool, play Fireman Sam feem choon.

After asking some questions about the weather, the number of animals killed each year (56 billion globally), the birth and death of Mahatma Gandhi (her current topic at school is India) and getting it to play ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ from Harry Potter on Spotify, our daughter started to go a bit deeper. Google Home is good at answering questions that are clearly thought through, logically phrased, and can be answered with a simple sentence. Get any more complex, though, and you get the stock response “I’m sorry, I can’t help with that yet. But I am always learning.”

Ten minutes in, and our daughter thoughtfully asks, “What happens to all of the questions we ask that Google can’t answer?”. (Heart swells with pride that she has a meta sense of the world which generates questions beyond her immediate experience.) What a great question: cue opportunity to give her a 10-second outline on machine learning.

On truth and the experience of finding out

What occurs to me as a parent is the potential (and the responsibility that comes with it) for Google Home to become a single source of truth to all of our children’s questions. Of course, it’s not at the stage of entering into a dialectical discussion about factory farming or the events leading up to Indian Independence, but it can satisfy many of the immediate questions that come up.

It does make me worry about the trustworthiness of the data served up in Google Home’s Answers. This is of course a fairly knee-jerk, emotional response given that we all unthinkingly use Google’s search results on devices, taking our pick of the first 3–5 results, believing that we freely choose which information has most relevance and most truth—a false choice, yes. And on screen we’d be more likely to fish around the results a bit, check which sites look more informative/trustworthy. Whereas being served an answer verbally means we’re more likely to take that answer as 100% accurate. My kids trust Google the way I trusted my parents’ knowledge. But how does Google Home select which websites to source its answers from? I couldn’t find a ready answer (LOL).

What if by asking Google Home a question, my kids are 100% satisfied with the answer and go no further in their journey to discover and learn more? They miss out, they have a mono-sensory understanding of that thing. And there is much written by educational psychologists now on how much more effective it is for children (and adults) to learn in ways that engage all of the senses.

Ben Sauer elaborated on some of the hurdles a VUI-enabled service has at his talk at Front-end London,

...if you ask Siri, “Where should I eat?” You are not going to process all the answers because voice interfaces [...] read a list of things. That’s a sucky way to process the information. I suspect voice interfaces will just be making choices for us.

Ben Sauer, UX Designer and Product Strategist, Clearleft

On guardianship

With technology becoming ever more part of how and what we do, and as ubiquitous computing becomes woven into the fabric of my children’s environment, guardianship becomes even harder. It’s one thing to break the addictive cycle with screens: that we can do. But VUI poses a new challenge, where the kids can get direct access to the device by simply opening their mouths and making demands. At least with the iPad, I can hide it if they’re getting too addicted. And yes, it’s true that I can tell Google Home to stop listening, but that doesn’t stop the kids commanding. Our three year old tried to switch from Prince to Fireman Sam yesterday, not realising Purple Rain was playing on the old school turntable in another room.

Psychology and curiosity

My daughter and her generation are being shaped by their access to seamless experiences and instant gratification (rewarding apps, TV without interruptive ads). Add VUI and its promise of immediate answers into the mix—there must be some impact on how her neurons fire, how her brain is forming. The Speak and Spell was the height of technological education when I was at primary school. If I wanted answers to my burning questions, I either had to badger the smartest adults around me or traipse to the public library. Curiosity built up over time, gained momentum with each unsolved piece.

To reference Ursula Franklin, if technology enslaves, at what point does the access to immediate answers start to rewire the brain to increasingly operate only in the instant, the now, the ‘rapid response or die’ mentality?

If a child can find an answer simply by voicing a question aloud, what shape will curiosity take in the years to come? It could go either way: a child’s curiosity could expand into a warren of rabbit holes as one question leads to another. Or they could be satisfied with a single rapid response and move off to the next distraction.

We recently did a bit of research on Smart Homes to prepare for a new business meeting, and our CTO Andy Walker summed up the current situation pretty well:

...in our wildest dreams we think about VUI as an interface that will interpret anything we might say and be interoperable with any number of other devices and services. The reality is far from the truth.

The most helpful use of Google Home I’ve found so far is obviating Netflix’s crappy TV search interface by commanding GH to play Better Call Saul via Chromecast. Yay!

Charlotte Hillenbrand

Charlotte Hillenbrand

Charlotte heads up Learning and Development at Made by Many. She is interested in Learning Organisations and the role they play in digital transformation, growing talent and happiness at work. She's responsible for delivering our Professional Development programme and learning initiatives.

With a digital career as old as Youtube, Charlotte has worked with clients from the media, entertainment, culture, sport, automotive, FMCG and charity sectors. Previously, she worked in book publishing and the business behind product design and repackaging.

In real life, she bears no resemblance to Charles II but she does have big hair.


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