Alexa: Don’t Screw Up My Kid

Articles about new technologies in the general media usually fall into one of two categories: breathless, this-is-the-coolest-thing-ever puff pieces or those it’s-gonna-kill-you-if-you’re-not-careful apocalyptic warnings. Occasionally writers manage to do both at the same time, but that’s rare.

A recent piece in the Washington Post leans toward that second theme by letting us know right in the headline that millions of kids are being shaped by know-it-all voice assistants. Those would be the little, connected, always-listening boxes like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home that sit unobtrusively on a side table in your home waiting to answer all your questions. Or order another case of toilet paper.

Many parents have been startled and intrigued by the way these disembodied, know-it-all voices are impacting their kids’ behavior, making them more curious but also, at times, far less polite.

Wow. Must be something in a new study to make that claim, right?

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.

Siri 800x300

I would say we’re all beginning to ponder the possibilities, good and bad, of artificial intelligence. For society in general in addition to how it will affect children as they grow.

But are the ways kids interact with these devices any different from technologies of the past?1

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?

I don’t think you need to be a “booster” of any technology to understand that most children, and even some of us old folks, have the remarkable ability to adapt to new tools for acquiring and using information. If you look closely, you might see that many of your students are doing a pretty good job of that already. And those important interpersonal skills? Kids seem to find ways to make those work as well.

Anyway, the writer goes on trying to make his case, adding a few antidotes from parents, some quotes from a couple of academics, and mentioning a five-year old study involving 90 children and a robot.

However, in the matter of how children interact with these relatively new, faceless, not-very-intelligent voices-in-a-box, there are a few points he only hints at that need greater emphasis.

First, if your child views Alexa as a “new robot sibling”, then you have some parenting to do. Start by reminding them that it’s only a plastic box with a small computer in it. That computer will respond to a relatively small set of fact-based questions and in that regard is no different from the encyclopedia at the library. And if they have no idea what a library is, unplug Alexa, get in the car and go there now.

Second, this is a wonderful opportunity for both of you to learn something about the whole concept of artificial intelligence. It doesn’t have to get complicated, but the question of how Alexa or Home (or Siri, probably the better known example from popular culture) works is a great jumping off point for investigation and inquiry. Teach your child and you will learn something in the process.

Finally, stop blaming the technology! If a parent buys their child one of these…

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.”

…and then lets it do all the comforting, teaching, and entertaining, the problem is with a lack of human intelligence, not artificial kind.

One thought on “Alexa: Don’t Screw Up My Kid

  • March 5, 2017 at 7:54 am
    Permalink

    It’s very nice that children have someone to talk to when both parents are focused on their phones. (Snark.)

    Reply

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