Alexa, What Does It Take to Be Human?

Mattel pulled a much-anticipated and hotly-debated toy recently.

Aristotle, a device geared for children anywhere from infancy to adolescence, was set up to be the kid’s version of Alexa. It boasted features such as the ability to soothe a crying baby, teach ABCs, reinforce good manners, play interactive games, and help kids with homework. Marketed as an “all-in-one nursery necessity” on Mattel’s website, it also offered e-commerce functionality that would enable Aristotle to automatically reorder baby products based on user feedback.

This little gadget would be the next big thing, engineered to “comfort, entertain, teach, and assist during each development state – evolving with a child as their needs change.”

You see where this is heading.

How much do we let artificial intelligence narrate our children’s lives? How can we put something like this in charge of soothing our kids to sleep, teaching the alphabet, and eventually helping with homework?

Could a tiny smart computer fill in all my gaps in parenting? The better question is, should it? I know what being saddled with my phone and Wi-Fi all hours of the waking day does to my psyche. What could it possibly do to a toddler or an 11-year-old?

The director of the M.I.T. Initiative on Technology and Self, Sherry Turke, said something in her approval of Mattel’s decision to nix Aristotle that made me pause: “The ground rules of human beinghood are laid down very early” and these machines have “changed the ground rules of how people think about personhood.”

Is this true? By creating Siri and Alexa and all manner of innumerable smart devices, have we changed what it means to be human?

Do you remember the little origami fortune tellers you could make out of a paper? You’d ask it a question – say, “who will I marry?” or “will I have a pool when I grow up?” – and then you’d pick a number, count it out, and open the flap to reveal your future.

I never got the pool. But I also never forgot that it was just a game. I didn’t really think I would marry David or Nick. But maybe if I carried it around all the time and asked it every question from age eight and onward, I would forget it was not, in fact, in charge of my fate.

Turke went on to say that “we can’t put children in this position of pretend empathy and then expect that children will know what empathy is. Or give them pretend as-if relationships, and then think that we’ll have children who know what relationships are.”

Have the things that used to define us as highly evolved creatures – our rationality and morality and curiosity – changed so much? Do we still care to defend right and wrong and ask why of the universe or are we content to ask Siri? Do we, the grown-ups, still know what empathy is? When I watch the news, I wonder.

Do we know what it means to develop and nurture and uphold sustainable relationships? I hope so.

Aristotle was a free-thinking scientist and philosopher. He was a man who believed in things acting according to their function. I do not believe he would have entrusted the development of our children’s minds to a computer. I’m not even sure where he’d put artificial intelligence in the hierarchical system. Is it animal, vegetable, mineral, or none of the above?

The ground rules of “beinghood” are constantly evolving, but the core of what makes us human stands. We still care enough to write great literature, fight injustice, love and lose and love again, and cancel a toy before it begins to raise our children. We still hold a tiny bit of prescience over the rightness and wrongness of where our curiosity is leading us.

As long as we are able to look up from our toys and ask of each other and the world, “What does it all mean?”, our humanity remains intact. Technology is a marvel and a necessary in the modern world, but it cannot define us. This is a new game we are playing, and we must play it wisely.

*This article originally appeared on Parent.co

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