How many of you brought home a new or an additional Google Home or Amazon Echo this past holiday? The Voice Reports says over 24 million devices were sold in 2017!
We may be one of the last families in Brooklyn without one. My husband, who used to be an early adopter of technology, has grown skeptical in the last few years. Questioning privacy, over-exposure and addictive behaviors, he pushes back on having the tech – especially a 'listening' device - just for the sake of having it. Technology is always been promoted by those who make it, as being the solution to our everyday problems. But is it going too far?
For or against, I'm sure you have had similar discussions in your home.
With the myriad of apps touting that they will solve all our needs – organizing, finances, wellness, schedules etc – I find myself still searching for one that will make everything easier. Many have great qualities, not one has been the solution. Trust me, coming from a family who has spent years as the advertisers who help 'sell' those needs, we too would never give up our iphones.
So when I saw a Tech2025 event labelled "How are the AI Voice Assistants and Intelligent Toys Changing the Way Children Think and Behave?", led by Randi Williams, an MIT Medial Lad PhD student (who creates robots and studies how kids interact with them), I absolutely knew I had to attend!
The room was filled with a variety of people - but less parents than I expected. Most were in the tech industry some where toy manufacturers and app creators using AI. There was a presentation on the research and group exercises which I will summarize for you:
1) Kids (up to tween ages) believe that AI devices are 'alive'.
Not alive like humans are, but they do believe they are capable of emotional connections. Research from the 90's continually shows that kids see robots filling emotional roles such as companionship.
2) Kids believe our in-home AI devices are trustworthy.
We know Alexa's main job - created by a retailer - is to ultimately help us buy stuff, but kids don't see that side of these devices. After all, we brought them home. We ask them questions and they answer them. Since they have an answer, like parents or teachers, they are inherently trustworthy.
When conducting trustworthy tests, AI dolls speaking with elementary-aged children told them statements such as "it's ok to hit our friends". The children were initially shocked by this, but after they were questioned decided to agree with the dolls.
3) Children clearly do not understand how the tech works.
Like social media and video games, it is our job as parents to know. Add it to the list, right?!
Tests were conducted in a room with multiple Alexa's. When children asked Alexa a question and she didn't know the answer, the continued to ask the other Alexa's one by one if they knew the answer. The children did not understand the one cloud idea.
4) Kids more often lean towards how AI can help with companionship - just as with traditional toys.
This may be interesting when we consider older generations who live alone but keep their own pets. My question is: what should we as parents watch out for with these new devices?Will our children be further pushed away from meaningful, one on one human interactions? Ms Williams thinks we should watch for interactions with AIs vs face to face. Families are already feeling that kids have too much screen time, so how does AI support their interpersonal skills that are already being challenged. Children know to pose simple questions, without the need for manners. Will this be how our children will start speaking to eachother? As parents our values for our families need to now apply towards these new devices and toys as well.
We may have internet rules and blockers on computers and devices at home now, but with devices that are on our countertops or in our toy boxes, we are actually giving our kids internet access at all times. There are no guardrails set up for that to protect kids and tech companies and families need to be prepared for that. We can talk to the toy manufacturers and voice our concerns (pun intended), and participate in the new developments.
Discussion around voice recognition and preferences based on voices for access was something many parents were interested in. Other ideas included communal positioning with the devices, or actually making the devices time-based so that when they've been on for a certain amount of time they would take the initiative to encourage your children to go outside and play or get involved with other means of play.
I'm fascinated by the ability and progress that we have, although I don't know what the right answer is even for my family. For now I'd like to wait and see and I"ll just have to get up and turn off the lights.