“Why is the sky blue, Dad?” my four-year-old blurted out one afternoon as we were playing in the living room. An excellent question, I thought, and quickly scrolled through the corner of my mind dedicated to grade-school minutia. Naturally, I drew a blank ⏤ or at least couldn’t remember anything other than molecules bouncing off the ozone layer ⏤ and turned instead to the blue-eyed brainiac on the shelf, Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, to pinch-hit.
It was only after my smart speaker jacked a home run with her science lesson, however, that things got interesting. Suddenly beaming, my inquisitive kid began spitting queries at her. He began grilling her on the size of the sun and the moon and whether or not there is life on Mars other than Matt Damon. Neil deGrasse Tyson would have been tickled. Much as I was upon realizing that I could easily slip out of the room unnoticed to get some things done around the house. I had just unwittingly hired my smart speaker as a babysitter.
Now, whenever I need a half hour to catch up on important emails, prep dinner, or practice my short game in the backyard, instead of turning on Wild Kratts or firing up Silly Walks on the tablet, I hand him off to Alexa for a nutritious dose of screen-free enrichment. Beyond her encyclopedic recall and bona fides as a pusher of STEM knowledge on malleable youth, Alexa is endowed with all the qualities you look for in a top-flight nanny.
She’s a rapt listener, a great communicator, and a veritable font of wisdom. For elementary and middle school age children she doubles as a homework assistant, retrieving answers whenever they get stuck. For the younger ones, she’s an engrossing story teller, especially for Audible users.
Mind you, I just happened to own an Amazon Echo. My argument, however, extends to all smart speakers with digital assistants ⏤ be it Siri, Google Assist, or Cortana, etc. Once a kid gets the hang of conversing with them, I’m convinced they’re just a better way to both educate and occupy. Plus, you don’t a have a zombie toddler entranced by a tablet screen.
I know what the skeptics are thinking. The last time a kid curled up in front of a speaker and had their attention spans held for more than 15 seconds was back in the golden age of radio. But smart speakers aren’t merely conduits of listening pleasure, they’re all about the back and forth. You talk to them and they talk back. It’s almost a real conversation. And at least in my son’s case, he doesn’t get bored and wander away.
He starts by peppering her with what he deems to be complex mathematical equations ⏤ he gets a kick out of hearing her recite multi digit numbers ⏤ before moving on state capitals, spelling, and requesting ‘hilarious’ dog and cat jokes, all powers Alexa has. He plays “Jeopardy”, even answering questions in the form of a question, and screams along to endless renditions of the Power Rangers theme song. Admittedly, the hair metal riffs tend to get stale to adult ears after about ten minutes, so it was a huge relief when a happy voice mis-recognition led to his discovery of The Beastie Boys.
Since I started reading him the original 1970s run of Iron Fist, he’s also taken a cursory interest in mindfulness. And since I also managed to convince him this is the key to being a kung-fu superstar (his career of choice du jour), lately his Echo sessions are spent listening to mediation playlists while building up his chi energy.
As far as the learning curve, since smart speakers run on natural language commands, controlling them is actually easier than learning the intricacies of a modern-day television remote. And for parents worried their kids will just use their speaker time to get lewd and crude, when f-words are dropped, the devices’ programming will pleasantly surprise you. “I’d rather not answer that,” is often the refrain when kids go blue.
Last week, I gained a full appreciation for how these things might just be this generation’s Teddy Ruxpin, albeit with a dash of SkyNet. I was cooking up salmon steaks while my son was occupying his favorite friend with a flurry of budding mathlete mumbo jumbo. Then all of a sudden… radio silence… and then he came running.
“She’s not talking,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes. Thankfully, a quick reboot and his brainiac babysitter was resuscitated, ready to bust out “Last Train Till Brooklyn” and teach times tables.