Olive peeks over the edge of the counter. She lifts her chin to direct her words at the black, round device plugged into the wall. A ring of blue lights responds to the voice of my five-year-old girl, communicating that the hockey puck-shaped appliance is listening.
“Tell me a joke.”
Our artificial-intelligence-tool hops into action, giving Olive what she asks for: a joke that she can’t possibly understand. But I see my little girl swell with a bit of pride; she rises onto her toes, grinning simply because her individual desire has been acknowledged. (I bet she wishes I had flashing blue lights to announce my undivided attention…).
Alexa goes by her other name, Echo, when someone like me wants to circumvent the idea that we have brought an invisible woman into our home with the only intent of telling her what to do. “Echo” makes her more of an AI, and less connected to a woman with an actual woman name. Before we were gifted Alexa for Christmas, I felt tormented each time my father in law criticized this woman voice.
Once again, she had not delivered the correct results when he demanded them. He raised his voice a little higher to command more specifically and clearly. I felt myself shrink into the couch in his living room as he disapproved of her performance.
“Arrgh. Alexa! You’re worthless.”
“Sorry...I don’t know that one.”
But it didn’t take long for our family to integrate this voice-activated servent into our own lives. Echo or not, I found myself frustrated at ‘her’ when she repeatedly answered my request for Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” by playing the motion picture soundtrack rendition from Trolls.
“Echo! Gah! STOP.”
Olive’s pencil pauses atop her drawing. Her ice blue eyes find mine, searching me. Before I can justify my outburst, she has already taken whatever lesson I just bestowed upon her and gone back to her picture. Fuck.
Here is this little human. She will never know what life is like without Echo. An A.I. will live in all of her childhood memories. What layer of her growth would this bind to; writing her interpretation of the world? (Yes, this is the normal level of crazy that my mind functions at when it comes to my kids.)
Of course, the earth continues its journey around the sun. And each generation has parents consumed by some similar worry over a technological advancement that “in my day” was never a thing: guns, motorized vehicles, televisions,... Echo seems a smidge trifle in comparison. Nonetheless, it’s my job to thoroughly exhaust every evil that could contaminate my kids. This skepticism, to scrutinize what isn’t visible to the naked eye, runs deep.
I have vivid memories of my mom’s outlook on our Nintendo. On an early Monday morning, my sister and I missed the school bus. I stood there beside her, glancing back up the steep, winding trail that led us home. The alternative was to walk forward into the woods where I could go and live, and never face the wrath of my mom. We didn’t own a vehicle. School was too far away to trek it. We had just guaranteed ourselves a day off, to be interpreted by whatever mood my mom was in when we woke her up to tell her.
I crept softly into her dark room, blankets hung, blocking out the light of day. I crouched beside her bed and very soothingly whispered her name,
“Mama.” She responded with a grunt of acknowledgment. “We missed the bus…” A single beat of silence as my heart thumped in my throat.
“Okay.” She pulled the blankets up around her face and fell back into a slumber. We were scot-free! We poured ourselves seconds on cereal and happily hunkered down in front of the tiny TV to play Super Mario Bros. Sarah could never beat me. I still kick some serious ass at that game. But on that morning, which quickly bled into the afternoon, my mother slept on, and our cereal bowls accumulated, and shoes were strewn about with unused backpacks. We bickered slightly over whose turn it was to be Luigi, our voices rising, forgetting the precarious situation that had allowed us to play video games for the better part of this Monday.
Suddenly the french doors to my mother’s bedroom were thrown open. My sister and I both thought we’d die of heart attacks, clamoring for the solace of each other as if we’d never argued a day in our lives. My mother stood there; think Cruella Deville after she wrecks her car in the snow, only to resurface at full terrifying force in her hunt to slaughter dalmatian puppies. My mom tore into the living room, clawing at the air in front of her until she had located the gray console atop the tv. She ripped it from its plugs, both controllers dangling, and without a word, she pivoted and stalked back into her bedroom. Light flooded abruptly into our two-story home as the blankets in her window were wrenched away; the sound of straining metal as the window was heaved open; our hearts freezing during the second of silence that came before a faint crashing of plastic tumbled down the mountain below.
This outburst was premeditated. My mom had often complained of the time we wasted on “that thing”; time we could have spent playing outside, or, cleaning something. Miraculously, the following day after she had defenestrated our beloved video game, we found our mother’s demeanor changed. After some tampering and vigorous blowing, we were able to play our game once again. They just don’t make things like they used to.
Back in this present day: I am forever indebted to Echo for: correctly spelling things, for sharing just enough news with me, and for 9 times out of ten, playing the correct song as I wash dishes. I say “thank you” to this thing, this object, to which she cleverly responds “no worries”. And when I lose my cool with her, Olive reminds me to be nice to Echo. Even Opa has found a calmer voice when it comes to faulting a device that depends on people asking good questions.
When the kids request that Echo play Parry Gripp for the umpteenth time at volume 10, and I find myself conditioned into singing along, “It’s raining tacos....” I do momentarily consider my mother’s tactics. But so far, so good. And that’s pretty much my outlook now: we’ve come so far, and we have so far to go. Our advancements will continue to progress. I hope to continue embracing them as opportunities for good.