How millions of kids are being shaped by know-it-all voice assistants
By Michael S. Rosenwald
Mar 2 2017
Kids adore their new robot siblings.
As millions of American families buy robotic voice assistants to turn off lights, order pizzas and fetch movie times, children are eagerly co-opting the gadgets to settle dinner table disputes, answer homework questions and entertain friends at sleepover parties.
Many parents have been startled and intrigued by the way these disembodied, know-it-all voices — Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, Microsoft’s Cortana — are impacting their kids’ behavior, making them more curious but also, at times, far less polite.
In just two years, the promise of the technology has already exceeded the marketing come-ons. The disabled are using voice assistants to control their homes, order groceries and listen to books. Caregivers to the elderly say the devices help with dementia, reminding users what day it is or when to take medicine.
For children, the potential for transformative interactions are just as dramatic — at home and in classrooms. But psychologists, technologists and linguists are only beginning to ponder the possible perils of surrounding kids with artificial intelligence, particularly as they traverse important stages of social and language development.
“How they react and treat this nonhuman entity is, to me, the biggest question,” said Sandra Calvert, a Georgetown University psychologist and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center. “And how does that subsequently affect family dynamics and social interactions with other people?”
With an estimated 25 million voice assistants expected to sell this year at $40 to $180 — up from 1.7 million in 2015 — there are even ramifications for the diaper crowd.
Toy giant Mattel recently announced the birth of Aristotle, a home baby monitor launching this summer that “comforts, teaches and entertains” using AI from Microsoft. As children get older, they can ask or answer questions. The company says, “Aristotle was specifically designed to grow up with a child.”
Boosters of the technology say kids typically learn to acquire information using the prevailing technology of the moment — from the library card catalogue, to Google, to brief conversations with friendly, all-knowing voices. But what if these gadgets lead children, whose faces are already glued to screens, further away from situations where they learn important interpersonal skills?
It’s unclear whether any of the companies involved are even paying attention to this issue.
Amazon did not return a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the Partnership for AI, a new organization that includes Google, Amazon, Microsoft and other companies working on voice assistants, said nobody was available to answer questions.
“These devices don’t have emotional intelligence,” said Allison Druin, a University of Maryland professor who studies how children use technology. “They have factual intelligence.”