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Olly Mann: The Digital Dad

BY Olly Mann

13th Apr 2023 Life

Olly Mann: The Digital Dad

When Olly Mann tires of the bedtime story, he finds an unexpected ally in AI

Look, it’s a wonderful thing to read your children bedtime stories. It fosters imagination, introduces the pleasures of reading, strengthens the bond between parent and child, yadda yadda yadda.  

But… when’s the right time to stop? Before they sprout underarm hair, I’d wager. Certainly before they get to the Honeymoon Suite. But, when? 

I was mulling this over recently, having realised that what used to be a relatively rapid event at the end of each day’s childcare (speed-read Tiddler, kiss goodnight, then hit the G&T) was fast eating into my evenings. Sometimes I wasn’t hitting the bottle until 8pm! 

The awkward in-between phase

My son Harvey, now 7, has progressed beyond Donaldson and Blyton and likes a proper ‘chapter book’, but isn’t ready for something that potentially might entertain us both, like Dickens or Kipling (we tried The Jungle Book, and he was literally kicking me in the face through boredom. Sometimes you’ve got to pick your battles).  

We’ve done all of Dahl, and he’s very anti-Harry Potter for some reason (I think he secretly finds witchcraft scary), so all that’s left is the dross from the dreaded ‘Ages 5-8’ section: adventure stories with neon jackets that are clearly designed for kids to read to themselves, but he’s not proficient enough for that, so I was reading them to him. And they’re really boring. 

"On every page someone has to do something silly with some underpants"

These tedious tales - or at least, the ones designed to appeal to boys - are all about dinosaurs and aliens and bottoms and bogies, and basically make no sense. When as an adult you read them aloud, they’re almost impossible to follow, because there’s endless plot but zero character development: everything happens and nothing happens, all at once. There are laboured jokes and derivative drawings and lots of ‘what if?’ scenarios which don’t get fully explored, because on every page someone has to do something silly with some underpants.  

But then we got Harvey an Alexa speaker for Christmas, and a solution presented itself: could I outsource our nightly bedtime story to Artificial Intelligence? 

Alexa the babysitter

Regular Digest readers will recall that I’ve been on something of a journey with Amazon’s smart speakers. Back in 2015, as gadget columnist for this magazine, I smuggled a first-gen Echo back in a suitcase from the States, and concluded: “An appealing concept. But knowing it’s listening in to your every conversation, all in the name of convenience, is mildly terrifying.” 

However, slowly, voice-activated technology has crept into my life. And, seemingly, everyone else’s: John Lewis started selling Alexa devices; radio stations began to acknowledge them (‘ask Alexa to play…’); even my 96 year-old Grandma got one. They became so enmeshed within our lives that a few years ago I sincerely used this column as a platform to plead with Jeff Bezos to develop a product that could filter out children’s voices - just to prevent Harvey from hijacking our Echo in the kitchen whenever I was trying to hear The Today Programme. (Last year, he requested ‘Wellerman (Sea Shanty)’ by Nathan Evans so many times that, according to Spotify, it was ‘my’ most listened-to track of 2022). 

 I’ve got five of these speakers now, and Harvey has grown up a full native of the ‘internet of things’. So, when Christmas came along, it made sense to get him an Alexa of his very own: a 5th gen Echo Dot Kids

"Last year, he requested "Wellerman (Sea Shanty)" by Nathan Evans so many times that, according to Spotify, it was "my" most listened-to track of 2022"

 And wow, Amazon really know what they’re doing. For children, it’s approachable and cool: glowing orange buttons, a picture of a fire-breathing dragon woven into the design, and a year’s free subscription to Amazon Kids. For parents, it pacifies as it satisfies: we can set limits on Harvey’s usage (it turns itself off at 8pm), block out bad language (it won’t play ‘Explicit’ songs), and keep an eye on the content he’s consuming. Plus we got a 56% discount for ordering it on Black Friday! 

 But I thought Harvey would just use it as a clock and music player. The audiobook function didn’t occur to me. So I was floored when, within half an hour of getting his hands on the gadget, he’d worked out that ‘Alexa, tell me a story’ was a worthwhile command. 

 You see, unlike Daddy, Alexa doesn’t tire of plodding through samey stories, can be paused at will, and delivers fart jokes with vigour. Alexa isn’t irritable, tired, or craving an alcohol hit. Is it any surprise Harvey prefers her to me? At first, I’ll admit, I took it personally (‘I’m his father! AND I’m an audio professional! Does he have any IDEA how much I charge for narrative voiceover?’), but came to realise both he and I were having happier evenings. 

"Unlike Daddy, Alexa doesn’t tire of plodding through samey stories, can be paused at will, and delivers fart jokes with vigour"

 The first few months were intense - Harvey polishing off no less than twenty consecutive Horrid Henrys - but his routine has settled down now, and he even actually asks me to read to him once or twice per week. But, most other nights, he prefers the company of his digital Dad. And I’m fine with that. Frankly, it’s hard to object to him having so much ‘screen time’ on a device with no screen.  

 Now, Alexa, can you get my kids to brush their teeth? 

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