Alexa, What Is the Meaning of Life, and Do You Control It?

Amazon Echo series by BestAI Assistant licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0/Original

Promoted from the diaries by streiff. Promotion does not imply endorsement.

Amazon Echo series by BestAI Assistant licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0/Original


By Robert Holland

Alexa, are you a just-for-fun toy, or are you a super-serious genie that dwells in the mysterious computing cloud from which you will descend to be a player in every aspect of our existence—even something as close to our hearts as the education of our children?

Or are you something in between? Can we make of you what we want? Or will you eventually just be totally in control of every step we take and all the ships at sea?

Oh, and no offense intended, Alexa. We could ask such questions of your peers in other sectors of the cloud, too—you know, other smart speakers like Google’s Echo Dot and Apple’s Siri.

I have to confess, Alexa, that Siri now resides in my household, and she didn’t even go out for a cup of coffee with me first. I merely upgraded the operating system on my Mac and – shazam! – Siri popped up as a clickable icon on my desktop, always there for me to ask any question that occurs to my non-voice-activated cognitive device.

Granted, that meant some off-the-wall queries, such as when I asked Siri how she stacked up against you, Alexa, or any hot item from over in Google Land. Instead of a spoken response, that smart-alecky question got me kicked wordlessly to a page where I could damn well just do a Siri opt-out. Evidently I caused offense.

Alexa, I don’t think Siri has a sense of humor. Do you have one?

Whether you do or not, it is clear that your corporate creator Amazon, that master of cloud-based commercial communication, has great pride in you and even greater plans for you as an education change agent. To quote from Amazon’s “Alexa in Education” developer page: “Voice-user interfaces such as Alexa can transform education. Whether you are a student, professor, IT administrator, or ed-tech professional, Alexa can help you reimagine your world.”

Alexa, I found that remarkable quote thanks to an astute ed-tech writer you may know, Benjamin Herold of Education Week, who in his writings acknowledges the potential for good in educational technology but also reports on possible drawbacks or outright dangers. He caused quite a stir last year when he wrote an even-handed critique of so-called “personalized learning,” which more accurately might be called “computer-guided instruction.”

When you are, uh, interfacing with kids, Alexa, will you encourage them to engage in independent study and analysis, while considering divergent perspectives as Herold does, or will you guide them to reimagine things as you yourself imagine them? Do you have a preferred worldview? Do you go with your capitalist origins, or do you now veer leftward toward socialism?

I found my way to another website Herold recommended—an Amazon education start-up company called ClassAlexa, featuring you, Alexa, the prodigy. There I heard for myself an audiotape of you hawking the kind of skills you could help educators acquire and then impart to their students. One was “social-emotional support,” which you modeled with these words, evidently intended for children: “If you’re feeling angry, frustrated, or mad, then you are in the red. Let me try and help. Stay in this quiet place with me.”

Social-emotional learning is the trendiest of Ed-World fads right now, with big bankrolling by high-tech fat cats and the feds. But I have to say, Alexa, your voice sounded far less soothing than that of a kindly teacher or parent informed of a child’s distress. The kid should go stay with a digital voice assistant? Got to say, all this creeps me out, Alexa.

Yes, there are some repetitive activities at which you could excel, such as being a proxy foreign speaker to a student learning a new language. No doubt you are fluent in Earth’s 6,500 spoken languages, Alexa. (If I sit in my quiet space, will you read me an original poem in Chemehuevi? Sarcee?) But then there are the Brain Breaks—something else ClassAlexa envisions—during which you would lead students in stretching exercises. Jeepers, creepers, wouldn’t the kids be better off having recess, breathing fresh air, and running around the playground happily?

I hate to tell you, Alexa, but the American Civil Liberties Union is among several sleuths watching you warily. They worry that you are wired into a complex system of microphones, sensors, and Internet-linked computers, all rigged to send back tons of personal information to your vendors and then God knows where. All that would put the privacy of kids, families, and educators in peril.

Say it ain’t so, Alexa.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.