Technology is amazing! Driving around town I had a chance to listen to a feature on an author, Judith Newman. I guess it’s a few years old, now, but I hadn’t heard about this application of Siri until today. In fact, it coincides with the latest around the use and application of all things Alexa. I’m sure if she had written that story today, it would have been about Alexa. Her story in the New York Times “To Siri, with Love” is about a virtual assistants turning into a virtual friend.
In this case, the virtual friend was not for Judith but for her autistic son. The very notion that computers have infinite patience and can be the unwavering and supportive voice a person needs, blew my mind. I mean, of course it can be. Such a simple application and yet, I hadn’t envisioned this use.
It’s not simply that you can talk to this virtual assistant (VA or Siri in her case), it was more that I realized that young people, autistic children (perhaps autistic adults as well), elderly people and probably every normal person out there could benefit by having a VA as part of their daily experience.
Judith’s son, Gus, used it to ask his VA questions, look things up, etc. much like anyone would do, but in his case, he might ask that same question multiple times or be looking for more clarity around a question for a long time. These VA’s with their infinite patience simply respond time and time again. It’s brilliant! It got me thinking about imaginary friends and automating objects.
Imagine a person (or child) who is having a difficult time grasping language, whether native or foreign. A VA could be the ear and mirror back proper grammar, good enunciation, increasingly difficult vocabulary, or simply a series of complete sentences (think a dialogue). And, it could do this again and again.
With our busy lives, these VAs could take the strain off of pocket books for tutors, parents for time and attention. Naturally, it’s no substitute for parenting and real connecting and it would be disadvantageous if the child simply repeatedly asked to hear their favorite Frozen song, but, as a supplement to learning, it could be amazing!
No more pestering parents with “Are we there yet?” “How much longer?” And, no more talking to thin air with “no one” to respond. Tutors could be a thing of the past. And, when I’m baking I can ask complex questions such as “Are the baking requirements different for a frozen versus non-frozen homemade pie?” and get a meaningful and appropriate response (well, I’m hopeful this will happen soon!). Now the VA’s have a deeper purpose than simply turning on and off lights, telling time, and playing music.
Imagine embedding one of these into a child’s favorite plush toy to make them “come to life.” It’s a little creepy but I think it’s also not far off. Plush toys often become a child’s first best friend, now there is the ability to make that BFF even more connected to the child and give the plush BFF a purpose…to assist the child with learning skills such as communication and language, something not unlike Alexa Ruxpin.
There is at least one major concern with the application of technology like this. If it has a way to access information outside of itself (i.e. from the web), then it’s possible for someone to access the device from outside and capture these interactions. I would hate to have a hacker suddenly looking in on my child, or me, for example. I’m already leery of Alexa for this reason.
As a funny sidebar, VAs are not just for kids and young people. As in this SNL skit, even the elderly can make use of one. In fact, I think anyone can benefit from the “Uh-huh” feature.
Meanwhile, while a VA could be a virtual friend, I’m most eager for the day when my VA will actually make me coffee. I simply don’t understand why every household doesn’t have a voice controlled machine today. I mean, how hard is it to tap into the programming of the coffee machine and simply make it respond to audio commands like it does its auto programming. After all, you can pair Alexa to anything these days.
Check out other examples of cool ways to animate objects: Creepy xmas tree.
And, a really cool way to control scenarios (like taping/recording) using voice commands and an Amazon Echo.
I think by now, you can guess what I’m psyched on getting for Christmas. 🙂
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