“Unless your parents purge it, your Alexa will hold on to every bit of data you have ever given it, all the way back to the first things you shouted at it as a 2-year-old.”
Among the more modern anxieties of parents today is how virtual assistants will train their children to act. The fear is that kids who habitually order Amazon’s Alexa to read them a story or command Google’s Assistant to tell them a joke are learning to communicate not as polite, considerate citizens, but as demanding little twerps.
This worry has become so widespread that Amazon and Google both announced this week that their voice assistants can now encourage kids to punctuate their requests with „please.“ The version of Alexa that inhabits the new Echo Dot Kids Edition will thank children for „asking so nicely.“ Google Assistant’s forthcoming Pretty Please feature will remind kids to „say the magic word“ before complying with their wishes.
But many psychologists think kids being polite to virtual assistants is less of an issue than parents think—and may even be a red herring. As virtual assistants become increasingly capable, conversational, and prevalent (assistant-embodied devices are forecasted to outnumber humans), psychologists and ethicists are asking deeper, more subtle questions than will Alexa make my kid bossy. And they want parents to do the same.
„When I built my first virtual child, I got a lot of pushback and flak,“ recalls developmental psychologist Justine Cassell, director emeritus of Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute and an expert in the development of AI interfaces for children. It was the early aughts, and Cassell, then at MIT, was studying whether a life-sized, animated kid named Sam could help flesh-and-blood children hone their cognitive, social, and behavioral skills. „Critics worried that the kids would lose track of what was real and what was pretend,“ Cassel says. „That they’d no longer be able to tell the difference between virtual children and actual ones.“
But when you asked the kids whether Sam was a real child, they’d roll their eyes. Of course Sam isn’t real, they’d say. There was zero ambiguity.
Nobody knows for sure, and Cassel emphasizes that the question deserves study, but she suspects today’s children will grow up similarly attuned to the virtual nature of our device-dwelling digital sidekicks—and, by extension, the context in which they do or do not need to be polite. Kids excel, she says, at dividing the world into categories. As long as they continue to separate humans from machines, she says, there’s no need to worry. „Because isn’t that actually what we want children to learn—not that everything that has a voice should be thanked, but that people have feelings?“
Point taken. But what about Duplex, I ask, Google’s new human-sounding, phone calling AI? Well, Cassell says, that complicates matters. When you can’t tell if a voice belongs to a human or a machine, she says, perhaps it’s best to assume you’re talking to a person, to avoid hurting a human’s feelings. But the real issue there isn’t politeness, it’s disclosure; artificial intelligences should be designed to identify themselves as such.
What’s more, the implications of a kid interacting with an AI extend far deeper than whether she recognizes it as non-human. „Of course parents worry about these devices reinforcing negative behaviors, whether it’s being sassy or teasing a virtual assistant,” says Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan and co-author of the latest guidelines for media use from the American Academy of Pediatrics. “But I think there are bigger questions surrounding things like kids’ cognitive development—the way they consume information and build knowledge.”
Consider, for example, that the way kids interact with virtual assistants may not actual help them learn. This advertisement for the Echo Dot Kids Edition ends with a girl asking her smart speaker the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy. As the camera zooms out, we hear Alexa rattle off the answer: „The Andromeda Galaxy is 14 quintillion, 931 quadrillion, 389 trillion, 517 billion, 400 million miles away“:
To parents it might register as a neat feature. Alexa knows answers to questions that you don’t! But most kids don’t learn by simply receiving information. „Learning happens happens when a child is challenged,“ Cassell says, „by a parent, by another child, a teacher—and they can argue back and forth.“
Virtual assistants can’t do that yet, which highlights the importance of parents using smart devices with their kids. At least for the time being. Our digital butlers could be capable of brain-building banter sooner than you think.
This week, Google announced its smart speakers will remain activated several seconds after you issue a command, allowing you to engage in continuous conversation without repeating „Hey, Google,“ or „OK, Google.“ For now, the feature will allow your virtual assistant to keep track of contextually dependent follow-up questions. (If you ask what movies George Clooney has starred in and then ask how tall he his, Google Assistant will recognize that „he“ is in reference to George Clooney.) It’s a far cry from a dialectic exchange, but it charts a clear path toward more conversational forms of inquiry and learning.
And, perhaps, something even more. „I think it’s reasonable to ask if parenting will become a skill that, like Go or chess, is better performed by a machine,“ says John Havens, executive director of the the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems. „What do we do if a kid starts saying: Look, I appreciate the parents in my house, because they put me on the map, biologically. But dad tells a lot of lame dad jokes. And mom is kind of a helicopter parent. And I really prefer the knowledge, wisdom, and insight given to me by my devices.„
Havens jokes that he sounds paranoid, because he’s speculating about what-if scenarios from the future. But what about the more near-term? If you start handing duties over to the machine, how do you take them back the day your kid decides Alexa is a higher authority than you are on, say, trigonometry?
Other experts I spoke with agreed it’s not too early for parents to begin thinking deeply about the long-term implications of raising kids in the company of virtual assistants. „I think these tools can be awesome, and provide quick fixes to situations that involve answering questions and telling stories that parents might not always have time for,“ Radesky says. „But I also want parents to consider how that might come to displace some of the experiences they enjoy sharing with kids.“
Other things Radesky, Cassell, and Havens think parents should consider? The extent to which kids understand privacy issues related to internet-connected toys. How their children interact with devices at their friends‘ houses. And what information other family’s devices should be permitted to collect about their kids. In other words: How do children conceptualize the algorithms that serve up facts and entertainment; learn about them; and potentially profit from them?
„The fact is, very few of us sit down and talk with our kids about the social constructs surrounding robots and virtual assistants,“ Radesky says.
Perhaps that—more than whether their children says „please“ and „thank you“ to the smart speaker in the living room—is what parents should be thinking about.
Lawmakers, child development experts, and privacy advocates are expressing concerns about two new Amazon products targeting children, questioning whether they prod kids to be too dependent on technology and potentially jeopardize their privacy.
In a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Friday, two members of the bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus raised concerns about Amazon’s smart speaker Echo Dot Kids and a companion service called FreeTime Unlimited that lets kids access a children’s version of Alexa, Amazon’s voice-controlled digital assistant.
“While these types of artificial intelligence and voice recognition technology offer potentially new educational and entertainment opportunities, Americans’ privacy, particularly children’s privacy, must be paramount,” wrote Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), both cofounders of the privacy caucus.
The letter includes a dozen questions, including requests for details about how audio of children’s interactions is recorded and saved, parental control over deleting recordings, a list of third parties with access to the data, whether data will be used for marketing purposes, and Amazon’s intentions on maintaining a profile on kids who use these products.
In a statement, Amazon said it „takes privacy and security seriously.“ The company said „Echo Dot Kids Edition uses on-device software to detect the wake word and only the wake word. Only once the wake word is detected does it start streaming to the cloud, and it will present a visual indication (the light ring at the top of the device turns blue) to show that it is streaming to the cloud.“
Echo Dot Kids is the latest in a wave of products from dominant tech players targeting children, including Facebook’s communications app Messenger Kids and Google’s YouTube Kids, both of which have been criticized by child health experts concerned about privacy and developmental issues.
Like Amazon, toy manufacturers are also interested in developing smart speakers that would live in a child’s room. In September, Mattel pulled Aristotle, a smart speaker and digital assistant aimed at children, after a similar letter from Markey and Barton, as well as a petition that garnered more than 15,000 signatures.
One of the organizers of the petition, the nonprofit group Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, is now spearheading a similar effort against Amazon. In a press release Friday, timed to the letter from Congress, a group of child development and privacy advocates urged parents not to purchase Echo Dot Kids because the device and companion voice service pose a threat to children’s privacy and well-being.
“Amazon wants kids to be dependent on its data-gathering device from the moment they wake up until they go to bed at night,” said the group’s executive director Josh Golin. “The Echo Dot Kids is another unnecessary ‘must-have’ gadget, and it’s also potentially harmful. AI devices raise a host of privacy concerns and interfere with the face-to-face interactions and self-driven play that children need to thrive.”
FreeTime on Alexa includes content targeted at children, like kids’ books and Alexa skills from Disney, Nickelodeon, and National Geographic. It also features parental controls, such as song filtering, bedtime limits, disabled voice purchasing, and positive reinforcement for using the word “please.”
Despite such controls, the child health experts warning against Echo Dot Kids wrote, “Ultimately, though, the device is designed to make kids dependent on Alexa for information and entertainment. Amazon even encourages kids to tell the device ‘Alexa, I’m bored,’ to which Alexa will respond with branded games and content.”
In Amazon’s April press release announcing Echo Dot Kids, the company quoted one representative from a nonprofit group focused on children that supported the product, Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute. Balkam referenced a report from his institute, which found that the majority of parents were comfortable with their child using a smart speaker. Although it was not noted in the press release, Amazon is a member of FOSI and has an executive on the board.
In a statement to WIRED, Amazon said, „We believe one of the core benefits of FreeTime and FreeTime Unlimited is that the services provide parents the tools they need to help manage the interactions between their child and Alexa as they see fit.“ Amazon said parents can review and listen to their children’s voice recordings in the Alexa app, review FreeTime Unlimited activity via the Parent Dashboard, set bedtime limits or pause the device whenever they’d like.
Balkam said his institute disclosed Amazon’s funding of its research on its website and the cover of its report. Amazon did not initiate the study. Balkam said the institute annually proposes a research project, and reaches out to its members, a group that also includes Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, who pay an annual stipend of $30,000. “Amazon stepped up and we worked with them. They gave us editorial control and we obviously gave them recognition for the financial support,” he said.
Balkam says Echo Dot Kids addresses concerns from parents about excessive screen time. “It’s screen-less, it’s very interactive, it’s kid friendly,” he said, pointing out Alexa skills that encourage kids to go outside.
In its review of the product, BuzzFeed wrote, “Unless your parents purge it, your Alexa will hold on to every bit of data you have ever given it, all the way back to the first things you shouted at it as a 2-year-old.”