“Hey Google”

A few fun things have happened in the past week.

  1. I started reading “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations” by Thomas L. Friedman
  2. My dad got me a Google Home for Christmas
  3. We finished our annual calendar trip around the sun (it’s now 2017)
After getting the Google home set up and playing with what I could ask it (I became giddy with finding the melting points of different elements and how many species of different types of animals there were), what it could do with other connected objects around the house (integration with multiple Chromecast Audio speaker groups is magic), and then I introduced my kids to it.


This was both immediately exciting and showed me that I was going to need to put some rules around it.


The first things I showed them we could ask it were what sounds different animals could make. My son went through all his top animals: monkey, pig, dinosaur, cat, dog, cheetah, lion, octopus (this last one google couldn’t help with). Then we started asking how far away certain things were. The moon, Iowa, China, etc.


I noticed a few things as my son was talking to it. First I had to explain that he had to be very clear with his enunciation, that if he didn’t speak clearly Google wouldn’t be able to answer. This caused him to ask me how things were pronounced if he wasn’t sure. (Even though it did amazingly well with even my two year olds limited pronunciations.) Second was that he had to think about his question before asking and not figure it out while speaking. A long enough delay, or rambling, after saying “hey google” led to no answer. Third, repeated requests for “what sound does a turkey make” could get old and shouldn’t be allowed during dinner.


This got me to thinking about how important something like this could be for developing a skill for asking good questions in children too young to read or write. Learning to ask good questions is the basis for discovery and needs to be taught and encouraged as early as possible.


With humans we are able to parse what the desired result is from a child’s question even with muddled words and intent. As a parent you learn to distinguish your child’s specific word choice, pronunciation, etc. Each child has their own language as they learn language. A search engine, even with excellent natural language recognition, still doesn’t yet have the ability to intuit what the goal of the question is. As such the questions must be well formed and somewhat in the range of reasonable. For example I had to explain to my son why google probably didn’t have a sound on record for an octopus.


For me watching my son converse with the Google Home Assistant was akin to watching him use a search engine for the first time. He would try different ways of asking a question if he ran in to no answer or “I don’t know how to help with that yet.” He saw me ask it to play a genre of music and quickly learned he could ask it to play songs he liked. He also started telling it stories and telling it he loved it. The youngest kids today will not remember a life where they couldn’t talk to their computers. Just like the generation just before them won’t remember life without the Internet, or TV for the one before them, or radio before them.


As a parent I think it is an excellent resource to have around as a teaching aid and conversation starter. We got out his Picturepedia when he ran out of animals he could think off off the top of his head and started asking for ones we found pictures of. Ostrich, Gorilla, Lemur, Llama, etc… Llama is still annoyingly popular. It also started conversations, amongst others, about where Google lived, what Google Home was, what the Internet is, how things are spelled, and why all Lemurs sound the same… (they don’t but Google doesn’t have sound files for all of them yet.)


Also, I came across this quote in “Thank you for being late” after we had started playing with it.


“In the twenty-first century, knowing all the answers won’t distinguish someone’s intelligence — rather, the ability to ask all the right questions will be the mark of a true genius.” – John E. Kelly III, SVP Cognitive Systems and Research at IBM


Ask good questions.


January 4, 2017 · 12:24 pm
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