My eight-year-old daughter, Harper, got her hands on a new iPhone 4S, and that’s when trouble started. Within minutes, she grew impatient with Siri after posing some queries to Apple’s speech-recognition “assistant” feature: “Can you pronounce my Mother’s name?” “Where do I live?” and “Is there dust on the moon?”—questions she did not assume the artificial voice wouldn’t answer. As it failed, delivering replies such as “Sorry, I don’t know where that is,” Harper became increasingly irritated, until she loudly concluded, “Siri, you’re stupid!” It responded “I’m doing my best.”
The promise of voice recognition software has lured us for more than a decade. While its place in schools is still limited, most educators have already seen its application in hands-free writing software and readable voice mail—and the frequently hilarious results.
But Siri promises more: the understanding of our needs and delivery of them. Of course, adults get that Siri isn’t true artificial intelligence. Sure it can make a memo for us, a call, or jot a note in our calendar. But a thoughtful dialogue about the dusty footprints left by astronauts? Apparently not.
The problem is that today’s children and teens expect more. And this is not a user group to be ignored. Already many of them have skills vastly superior to their parents and certainly grandparents. And there’s a hazard in their disappointment. Of course, kids aren’t buying the iPhone 4S. But they are using technology in the way they learn. And when presented with tools that fail to deliver, kids can be turned off—not just to the device or software, but to the lesson or content as well. That’s hardly the goal of teachers and media specialists as they make choices on how to invest their technology budgets.
Today, the expectation among kids is for real-time, immediate response. Texting. Game play. Touchscreens. They push, something is pushed back. Quickly. Accurately. And students are rejecting the activities and interfaces that don’t offer that return. We’re watching it now. Teens migrating from blogs, for example—looking instead for an instant connection, a natural response without the wait. Pew Internet Research has found that the number of teen bloggers decreased by half from 2006 to 2010. Harper herself already dislikes email, preferring Skype to text pals. An answer in seconds. (The cute, smiling emoticons don’t hurt either.)
Children live in a unique realm where they tread the cusp of reality and magic. And they’re willing to play with objects, accept their limitations, and fill in with their imaginations. Hence fairy houses made of cardboard. LEGO worlds for Transformers. Harper dreams of a flying chair that will take her past the stars. Kids build in hope of creating a place for their magic to live, and then seek to learn, understand, and invent. It’s the promise, and yield, of a great education. But Siri poses a unique problem. A talking phone that works about as well as Baby Alive. There’s too much frustration to allow the imagination to fill the gaps.
Interactive artificial intelligence will no doubt improve. But as educators consider the tools they use with students today, selecting technology that engages children is as crucial a factor as budget. A talking device that can’t tell Harper about the real galaxy where she lives deflates her curiosity; that’s not just a moment’s irritation but a learning moment lost. By delivering a lackluster product on a wide scale, the engineers in Cupertino may have impacted our future students and leaders—by turning them away.