But every other supposedly obvious technical interface has proved to require some prior knowledge or familiarity. People had to be trained to operate a mouse, for example; direct control of a cursor was awkward until it became habitual. The touch screen built on the mouse, replacing the pointer with the finger. Its accompanying gestures—flicking through a feed or pinch-zooming a map or swiping right on a love interest—have come to feel like second nature. But none of them are actually natural.

Voice assistants appear to bypass that legacy, offering hands-free operation for able-bodied folk and new accessibility for those with limited mobility or dexterity. Yet they still require expertise. Dad loves classical music, so I suggest that he try out Amazon’s extensive music library. “Alexa, play Brahms’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5,’ ” he says. He’s gotten it partly wrong—the composer is Liszt, not Brahms—but Alexa throws up her hands completely: “I can’t find ‘Rhapsody No. 5’ by Brahms Hungarian.” Someone familiar with web searches would realize he’d provided too much information and simplify the request. Instead, Dad just looks baffled.

Another problem: While voice-activated devices do understand natural language pretty well, the way most of us speak has been shaped by the syntax of digital searches. Dad’s speech hasn’t. He talks in an old-fashioned manner—one now dotted with the staccato march of time. “Alexa, tell us the origin and, uh, well, the significance, I suppose, of Christmas,” for example.