September 15, 2014

‘Siri, You’re Stupid’: Limitations of artificial intelligence baffle kids who expect more

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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.

 

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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business and technology, and is the recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism. She can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

Comments

  1. Interesting . . . when I was growing up, it was my parents I asked questions about the moon, my home, their names. And they answered with a personal story, a trip to the library, ideas about the wide variety of places to get answers. It’s not the job of any single person, place, or technology to answer all of a child’s questions. If engineers are out to “solve the problem” of keeping kids engaged and interested, they have to be willing to offer solutions that involve something outside of the technology itself. In other words, an iPhone doesn’t have all the answers, nor should it pretend that it does. But it should be able to provide guidance for engaging with the world outside of itself.

  2. Great and informative article Lauren!! I recently was told the very same thing from a friend of mine when her young daughter attempted to ask Siri questions as if she were a mind reader.

    Best,
    Kathy

  3. Your daughter maybe too old to understand and utilize this new technology. I say this because I have seen toddlers manipulate ipads both by imitation and experimentation and their experiences mold their understanding and application of this technology in ways that have reversed our understanding of experiential learning. When I want to do something that I don’t understand with my ipod interface I am more inclined to ask a 4-8 year old than an adult or even anyone above 8 years old. This is because 4-8 year olds have more experience and a more pure experience using these devices. Life experience

    Interesting article, though. Even as kids we have to understand the application of technology to our environment. There is never an easy answer to the questions kids pose. I think the far reaching implications of this new technology in our lives is misunderstood.
    I can see a time in the near future where siri will have a unique voice identifier, facial recognition, mood recognition etc. Siri will know all about you and your mother and how you form questions in your language, in your mood, with your particular speech impediment etc. I am sure that you are underestimating this new and exciting technology!

  4. I think that this is the main problem with nowadays kid. Expecting to rely heavy on technology? A tool built by Human? Our world is definitely going down and only more down.

    People need to start going outside again and socialize. And no, I am not talking about Facebook/Twitter/Google+/etc…

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