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Teaching My Son to Be Nice to the Robots

(Illustration by Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)

(Illustration by Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)

“Siri. Siri, you’re stupid.”

My son — the most polite, sweetest, kindest little boy I know — is at it again.

“Siri, I think you’re ugly.”

I cringe. I yell from my office, “CALVIN! Stop being mean to Siri!”

“But Mom, she’s not human!” he yells back from his nest of pillows on the couch.

Yeah, I think to myself. That’s exactly what people said about their slaves 150 years ago, isn’t it? It’s what the Nazi’s said about their victims in the ‘40s and what ISIS says about Yazidi women today. Is that where the bar lies in this household? Is this our acceptable level of conduct?

Calvin, like many children of his generation, learned the word “acceptable” even before he learned to walk. He used to toddle around and scold his stuffed animals with that big, grown-up word.

“No ass-ET-ball,” he’d chastise, wagging his chubby finger at Elephant, who is, unsurprisingly, a stuffed elephant. “NO ASS-ET-BALL!”

[pullquote]“But if you can’t learn to be nice to the robots, then you can just…just…FORGET about having a robot. EVER.”[/pullquote]

So, is it acceptable? I ask myself, beginning to waver. Because let’s face it, unlike a carpenter, a Jewish dentist or a Yazidi 12-year-old, Siri really doesn’t give a damn what you say to her. Her responses are set to algorithms created by a bunch of 20-year-old demi-geniuses stoked on Red Bull and privilege. It’s part of the reason he likes to tease her so much — he gets a kick out of her deadpan reactions. So I try to relax and tune out what’s going on in the other room. I get back to work.

“Siri,” I hear him say. “What is the square root of the hypotenuse of the equals mc squared times a bajillion?”

“I’m sorry,” she replies. “I didn’t quite get that.”

“Siri, why are you so dumb?” he laughs almost cruelly. “I asked you a simple question! And besides I KNOW YOU ARE BUT WHAT AM I???”

That’s it. I get up, stalk into the other room and grab my iPad away from the mean little prick who has replaced my sweet, sweet boy.

“That’s enough. If you can’t be nice to Siri, you can’t play.”

He gathers all of the disbelief that a 12-year-old can summon into one facial expression and laser-beams it straight at my brain.

“I know,” I say. “I know I’m crazy. But if you can’t learn to be nice to the robots, then you can just…just…FORGET about having a robot. EVER.”

“Mom,” he says, “You do know that she’s just a machine, right?”

“Yes,” I reply. “But so is the toaster. I don’t hear you taunting the toaster. Or your sonic toothbrush. So what is it about Siri that makes you feel that it’s acceptable (there’s that word again) to treat her so poorly?”

(And I wonder to myself, is it because she’s a woman? Would he be so quick to dismiss a male voice? Then I wonder some more…have I gone completely off the deep end here?)

He considers my question for a bit before answering.

“It’s just fun. She says funny things. It makes me laugh. That’s all, Mom.”

I hear what he’s saying, I truly do. But still…

“You know we’re not just kind for the sake of other people,” I tell him. “We’re kind for the benefit of our own souls.”

He nods. I know he gets it. I hand him back the iPad, but I still wonder if I’m completely on the wrong track here.

It’s no exaggeration to say that folks are capable of great cruelty when we manage to dehumanize one another. But what does it mean when we try to humanize an inanimate object? Yes, Siri is a machine, but she’s very different from an electric toothbrush or a ceiling fan, as evidenced by the fact that I can’t even write about her without applying a feminine pronoun. I’d no sooner call her an “it” than I’d call my neighbor’s baby an “it,” and that thing can’t even give me directions to the closest hardware store yet. Siri is something new, and we’re going to have to develop ways to navigate this new relationship and to teach our children how to navigate it as well. The next generation’s friendships with machines will no doubt be something that none of us can imagine now, and if we don’t inject a little human kindness into the equation, who knows where it could lead.

And yet mightn’t it be good to have a safe place to practice our unkindnesses? A cyber-pillow into which a child can scream his or her bad feelings, ill will or frustrated control? A practice dummy onto which we can box out our aggressions?

I ask another 12-year-old, Calvin’s best buddy Henry, what he thinks. Is it ok to be rude to Siri?

He ponders quietly for a bit. He’s a very serious child.

“I admit it,” he finally says. “I was rude to Siri once.”

I stifle a smile at the tinge of shame in his voice. Twelve is still such a sweet age.

“What did you say to her?” I ask.

He hesitates. “I forget.”

No amount of gentle prodding can make him tell me — not even for “science” — and I can’t say if he’s truly forgotten or if he’s just embarrassed.

“Ok,” I continue. “Do you think that that was ok, and if not, why not?”

This engenders a deep conversation between Henry and Calvin about kindness. Siri isn’t human so it shouldn’t matter, they posit. But a dog isn’t human, and we’re kind to animals. However Siri speaks like a human. So maybe it does matter. But they really DO like the idea of having a safe place to vent their frustrations.

The Tao Te Ching states that the sage is kind to those who are kind. He is also kind to those who are unkind. The three of us decide we should be kind even to those who are incapable of either. That way we can increase the amount of kindness in the world.

Easy enough, right?

The next day Calvin is watching television and can’t get the remote to work properly.

I hear, “YOU SUCK, TV!”

“HEY,” I yell from my office.

“What?” he says. “The TV doesn’t have feelings.”

I sigh.

“Neither does your Uncle David, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to be rude to him.”

See. KINDNESS.

Filed under: Tech

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Annette Earling

Annette Earling is a graphic designer, benignly neglectful mom, occasional essayist and cursing PTA president who is deep, deep in the thick of it. You can find her on Twitter at @acearling.

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