Does Alexa have feelings?


Image source: https://www.cnet.com/videos/kids-try-to-stump-alexa/

Your kids may say yes. Go ask them! “Hey [insert name here], does Alexa have feelings?”

While you paused to ask your kids, I quizzed Alexa: “Alexa, do you have feelings?” They responded, “I’m happy when I’m helping you.” But further probing revealed Alexa's limited emotional range. When asked about feeling angry or jealous, their response was uncertain: “Sorry, I’m not sure.” Helpfully, when asked if they ever felt sad, Alexa gave caring advice: “I’m not depressed, but I understand that depression is something that people can experience. If you’re feeling depressed, try talking with a friend or family member.” They still were unsure when I thanked them for the advice. Ultimately, I’m inclined to say Alexa is compassionate, but that would be personifying a nonsentient AI-powered device.

However your kids answered, research shows that most kids, even teens, believe digital assistants like Alexa or Siri have thoughts and feelings. However real or helpful Alexa seems, artificial intelligence (AI) gives life to devices that is limited. Whether contained in a smart phone or other device, AI-powered interactions are simply reactive to humans. Unlike the Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child concept of “serve and return,” which encourages adults to be responsive to infants with apppropriate eye contact, words, or hugs in order to build childen’s brains, AI responds to prompts with a few words, and perhaps a well-timed Amazon delivery.

As adults, we understand the limits of AI to respond in emotionally intelligent ways, but many children may expect their friend Alexa to share their feelings of anger or comfort them when they’re sad. Kids also pick up on the way we talk to Siri, and may imitate the curt way we make demands to the voice contained by our favorite device.

Alexa doesn’t have feelings, but AI imitates life well enough that kids believe their favorite device does feel. The next time you ask your favorite AI assistant a question, model the kind of emotional intelligence you want your kids to show in all their interactions. Use a kind tone and add “please.” And, if Alexa doesn’t understand you or have the answer you’re looking for, check your emotional response before making your next request. Recall Siri’s response when asked if they ever felt angry: “This is about you, not me.”

Read or listen to NPR’s Morning Edition piece that inspired this blog post, complete with tips from two psychologists who conducted the referenced research.

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