Alexa controversy: What are voice assistants teaching our children?
In January 2017, toy company Mattel revealed a prospective new product – a voice-activated smart assistant designed to interact with your child at all stages of their development. Called Aristotle, the device was essentially an Amazon Echo for kids designed to, "comfort, entertain, teach, and assist during each development state — evolving with a child as their needs change."
By May of 2017, public debate was raging over the appropriateness of whether a device such as this should even be developed. A petition calling for the product's release to be canceled gathered more than 15,000 signatures, and then two US Senators, Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, sent a letter to Mattel raising several privacy concerns.
"Aristotle appears capable of recording and transmitting personal and sensitive information about a child's development back to Mattel," wrote Markey and Barton. "This new product has the potential to raise serious privacy concerns as Mattel can build an in-depth profile of children and their family. It appears that never before has a device had the capability to so intimately look into the life of a child."
In October, Mattel responded to the controversy by canceling plans to release the device. The company didn't specifically address the ethical implications of the product in its public statements but simply suggested, "After our new CTO, Sven Gerjets joined the company in July, he conducted an extensive review of the Aristotle product and decided that it did not fully align with Mattel's new technology strategy."
What's the magic word?
While many debated the privacy issues surrounding placing an "always-on" monitoring device in a child's bedroom, another perhaps more compelling question has slowly arisen over the past couple of years: How do voice assistants affect the behavior of infants and toddlers?
Back in April 2016, San Francisco-based writer, and former YouTube & Google employee, Hunter Walk published a brief blog describing the effects of an Amazon Echo on his family. The piece spoke about the positive aspects an Amazon Echo brought into the household but it also questioned whether the device's tolerance of bad manners was, "turning our daughter into a raging asshole."
"Learning at a young age is often about repetitive norms and cause/effect," wrote Walk. "Cognitively I'm not sure a kid gets why you can boss Alexa around but not a person. At the very least, it creates patterns and reinforcement that so long as your diction is good, you can get what you want without niceties."
After a couple of years of debate it seems both Amazon and Google have finally responded with moderate updates to their voice assistant systems. Last week at the Google I/O developer conference, Google revealed that its Google Assistant system will now offer what is called the "Pretty Please" setting. This feature can be enabled on specific voice profiles and will cause the system to respond positively to commands that are phrased with polite wording, such as "please" and "thank you." It's also reported that the feature will prompt a user to "say the magic word" to try and guide a child into more polite behaviors.
Amazon also recently rolled out an update for all its Alexa-enabled devices called "Magic Word." This feature again simply introduces positive reinforcement from Alexa when commanded politely. Neither system has gone as far as only fulfilling tasks when accompanied by polite words such as "please," and an Amazon spokesperson suggested to the BBC that the company had been advised by experts that a stronger approach would not be effective.
"We talked to third-party child development experts as we were building this feature, they said that if you are going to try and offer them guidance, then positive reinforcement is the best way to do that as it's not punitive. They had found that saying, 'You will not get this if you do not say please,' is not useful with kids and doesn't work."
Alexa... for the kids
In late April 2018, Amazon made the biggest play yet in bringing a voice assistant into children's bedrooms with its Echo Dot Kids Edition. This colorful iteration of the Echo Dot is expressly targeted at children and, in addition to the "Magic Word" feature, it comes with a new parental control system called FreeTime.
FreeTime comprises bedtime limits, disabling of voice purchasing, and explicit song blocking, as well as a whole host of kid-friendly content from talking books to alarms that are voiced by cartoon characters. Amazon is also improving its voice-recognition systems to soon be able to respond to commands such as "Awexa" for young children who cannot properly pronounce "Alexa."
Unsurprisingly, the same groups that were opposed to Mattel's Aristotle last year have quickly moved to call for a boycott of the product, urging parents to steer clear. Josh Golin, from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), questions what kind of effect these voice assistants are having on the development of young children.
"Amazon wants kids to be dependent on its data-gathering device from the moment they wake up until they go to bed at night," says 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."
Senators Ed Markey and Joe Barton, the duo prominent in the Mattel Aristotle battle last year, again quickly raised their concerns in an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. The letter lays out 12 questions for Bezos, primarily surrounding security concerns regarding the data gathered by the Echo Dot Kids Edition. The final question that Markey and Barton pose to Bezos is intriguingly broad.
"Did Amazon work with child development experts while creating the Echo Dot Kids Edition? What mechanisms are in place, if any, to understand the impact of using the Echo Dot Kids Edition on children's development?" ask Markey and Barton.
In a short recently published statement, Amazon responded by saying it will work directly with the Senator's office to address each question. The company also noted that it did work with a variety of "child development experts and advocacy groups" while developing the Echo Dot Kids Edition. The Family Online Safety Institute is specifically mentioned by Amazon as one of those key advocacy groups that endorsed the device.
The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) is a not-for-profit dedicated to making, "the online world safer for kids and their families." In the press release launching the Echo Dot Kids Edition, Stephen Balkam, CEO of FOSI was quoted as saying, "In our latest research report, FOSI found that the majority of parents were comfortable with their child using a smart speaker, and by making this service available, Amazon is creating another safe, kid-friendly experience for families."
The research report from FOSI, published in November 2017, does indeed suggest that seven out of 10 parents are comfortable with their child having a connected toy, and 94 percent of parents who have a smart speaker in the house are comfortable with their child using it. It should be noted that the research was "made possible by the support of Amazon," and Amazon does have a presence on the organization's board.
Questioned as to Amazon's connection with the not-for-profit company's research, Balkam said to Wired, "Amazon stepped up and we worked with them. They gave us editorial control and we obviously gave them recognition for the financial support."
Regardless of those questions over the motivations behind FOSI's research, it's worth noting that ultimately it is a little irrelevant. While the data surely suggests that parents are comfortable with their children using smart speakers, that doesn't particularly have any import over whether these things are developmentally positive.
"Mom", "Dad", and "Alexa"
Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavior pediatrician from the University of Michigan, suggests an Alexa-like device for children may stifle a child's growth. In reference to one of Alexa's features where it responds to a command of "Alexa, I'm bored," with a variety of content, Radesky says this removes the essential importance of boredom in a child's development.
"Children's boredom is important to their cognitive and social-emotional development because it forces them to use their creative thinking skills to figure out what to do next – not be told what to do or think by a parent or a device – and it also gives children practice in tolerating their own (albeit mild) distress," say Radesky. "These two skills – creative initiative and distress tolerance – are incredibly important in life success, but may become harder for children to develop if they become accustomed to immediate boredom relief through a virtual assistant or other device."
Perhaps issues of a voice assistant simply teaching politeness is a red herring, and ultimately beside the point. Concerns over what effects the simple presence of voice assistants will have on a child growing up with one in the house are completely unknown. A Los Angeles Times article from late last year suggests some children's first words are now not "Mama" or "Papa," but "Aga" – a reference to Alexa.
Not all experts are suggesting voice assistants are bad for children, though. Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT Media Lab researcher who is studying how young children interact with various voice-controlled systems has found that talking to a voice assistant could in fact help improve and accelerate a child's communication skills. Breazeal's research suggests that by teaching a child to talk slowly and clearly, these devices could help kids become more proficient at communicating with others at younger ages.
The debate will surely rage on, after all, voice-controlled systems have only been in our homes for a few short years, and we are far from understanding the long-term implications of the devices on a child's development. How does an infant conceptualize the idea of a faceless virtual assistant that immediately answers questions out of thin air? We may not know the answer to this question for some time but one thing is for sure, voice-controlled devices are not going anywhere, so this is yet another new technological challenge that parents will have to grapple with.