Alexa, Siri, can you do my homework for me?

A recent news piece in Daily Mail titled, 'Alexa, what is eight times four?' caught the attention of many, including myself. It spoke about how a mother catches her son, aged nine, cheating on his Maths homework with the help of the Amazon Echo smart speaker. The mother, Gormanley, posted a video on Facebook showing her son Bryce asking times table question to the device and has since amassed almost two million views. The mother captioned it so: 'I would say it's a fantastic effort son - not. Alexa is not how you do your homework, Bryce.' Of course, Bryce did the homework all over again, and the mother-son duo had a good laugh at the video and decided to share it with everyone.

Hmm, Alexa as a homework assistant requires some pondering. At the risk of sounding like a nagging adult, I'd have to say that during my growing up years our homework assistants were basic and few. There were notes, handwritten, borrowed from friends or photo-copied from the available study material. There were reference books, borrowed from libraries. There were sample test papers bought from the book stores. There were seniors, who offered tips and shared tricks. A few of us even had tutors, to help. Of course, parents and teachers formed a major part of the available options. Occasionally, we were allowed to make a phone call to a classmate to clear a doubt.

Yes, there was the Internet as well but was purely for research work. Our homework was ours, but we were allowed to seek help. Having said that, it was always our headache to finish the assigned tasks, our way and on time. If we coloured out of the lines or didn't know the answer to 8 X 4 - there was only one way to fix it. Study harder. If back then, the option existed would I have looked up to Alexa or Siri? I really can't say. The idea does sound tempting; after all, who likes writing homework?

Of course, the logical argument in the situation is that times have changed. School projects and assignments have become tougher and most parents complain that holiday homework is designed to make them do all the hard work. Plus, kids have more to attend to than just school. And then we can't argue that technology has overtaken our lives, with a promise of interactive, fun, enlightened education. So, why not? Why draw a bird when you can print out an outline of it? Why flip through books, when a right-click can provide 100,000 results in a second? In the same vein, why bother to multiply when a device can attend to it? After all, technology's role is to make our lives easier.

But, are children aware that this casual dependence on technology is hindering their growth? Perhaps not. For most of them, it's a fun game to test if Alexa is smarter than them. For a few others, it's the natural choice to use the medium to find a solution to every question - what to eat for dinner, what to watch on television, how to catch the next bus, etc. Soon enough, they're likely to get bored of the game, hopefully. If not, then we'd have to brace ourselves for a future, where children will struggle to spell out words and multiply numbers but will be good at flying drones. Or we can start with fixing the present by explaining to them that there are no shortcuts to writing essays, solving maths problems, or conducting science experiments. Better still, we could set examples by relying less on Alexa's searches and Siri's assistance.

This piece was first published in Khaleej Times.

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