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caption: Oscar Pulkkinen, 4, chats with Amazon's Alexa voice assistant through the company's Echo smart speaker.
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Oscar Pulkkinen, 4, chats with Amazon's Alexa voice assistant through the company's Echo smart speaker.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery

Parenting in the age of Alexa? It’s complicated

This week’s episode of Primed talks about the relationship between children and Alexa, Amazon’s AI-powered virtual assistant.

Kids love to ask Alexa questions.

And Alexa is listening.

Corinna Sullivan’s youngest child’s first sentence was directed at their Echo Dot.

“It was ‘Wexamynaydoh’?” Sullivan said. “We found out that his ‘nay’ is his toy pony. So he was asking where he had misplaced his toy pony, but he never asked me. He only asked our Dot.”

Amazon’s Echo Dot allows people to access Alexa, Amazon’s voice-responsive assistant.

Sullivan said that Alexa “didn’t actually pick up on his vocal cues, and so that provided some frustration for him.”

Sullivan’s son wasn’t able to talk to Alexa because he couldn’t say the “wake word” — though, as Sullivan notes, he did say “Wexa.”

Now, Amazon has designed a kids’ version of its Alexa speaker.

Parents have a lot of questions about how the Echo — and its new kids' version —will change family life. Will asking Alexa questions help unlock kids' natural creativity and desire to learn? Or will bossing around an ostensibly female AI make children into sexist jerks?

Honestly, we don't have answers to these questions yet, because the technology is so new.

We do have some results from early studies coming in, though, and they tell us something fascinating: at the root of our fears about the Echo lies a much more ancient fear — the fear of being replaced.

We'll get to that later.

AI designed to grow alongside children

Josh Sherman, director of Amazon’s Kid and Family division, said the Echo Dot Kids Edition is like the regular Dot, but it’s brightly colored, like a giant piece of saltwater taffy.

It has parental controls, so you can make sure kids aren’t staying up all night asking Alexa questions.

And, since kids have different speech patterns than adults, they are programming it with words that children might use. For example, Amazon had to teach Alexa to recognize kid variations of its wake word, such as “Lexa” and “Lessa.”

The kids’ version of Alexa is also programmed to give different answers to questions.

“If a child asks, ‘Why is the sky blue,’ and the general audience answer is, ‘Well, let me tell you about electrons and photons and this chemical and this element,’ that’s very confusing for a 6 or 7 or 8 year old,” Sherman said.

“We don’t want to dumb down Alexa – but we also want to meet kids where they are.”

Whenever a kid asks a question Alexa can’t answer, it’s an engineer’s job to fix it — so that next time, Alexa gives a better answer.

“At some point, a kid’s going to ask ‘What is a unicorn’s favorite food?’ And I think Alexa — if she doesn’t know that today — she’s going to know that tomorrow,” Sherman said.

He said that Alexa is going to learn to “engage in imaginative play” and will be able to adapt and develop with children as they grow. As a result, “Alexa can be there over the course of the next ten years, definitely,” he said.

This also means Amazon is recording kids' interactions so they can get better at responding to children.

What are we so afraid of?

The fact that the kids' version of the Echo records children's voices is making some parents worried about their children’s privacy. In fact, a woman in Massachusetts is currently suing Amazon for storing these recordings.

The lawsuit shows that some parents have concerns about surveillance and privacy.

Others worry that Amazon is training children to become their next customer base.

Sherman noted that “there’s a long time before they become full-fledged Amazon customers.” But it’s easy to imagine that asking Alexa to play music and answer questions could easily morph into asking it to buy things, too.

But there's another unique and surprising fear that underlies parent's concerns about smart speakers.

Researchers found that parents have a fear that Alexa will replace them, or at least, come between parent and child. And this fear stems from Alexa's human-like voice and the way it sometimes sounds almost like a parent.

“There was kind of this ick factor for a lot of parents. For some reason it was really this voice interface that posed a risk, or seemed to raise a red flag for parents,” said Alexis Hiniker.

Hiniker is the director of the User Empowerment Lab at the University of Washington Information School. She surveyed parents about what technology they’d be willing to accept at the dinner table.

Hiniker said parents generally don’t like screens at the dinner table. But they preferred screens over smart speakers like the Amazon Echo – by a wide margin.

And they really didn’t like the idea of a smart speaker offering them tools to help parent their children.

“They didn’t want an Echo telling their child to sit still or helping them regulate what they eat or their behavior or their conversations with other people,” Hiniker said.

Parents don’t like the idea of outsourcing their parenting to a technological surrogate.

It turns out that kids have this same anxiety — that technology could replace their parents, or that their parents will care more about technology than they do about their kids.

Jason Yip has been studying the same group of kids for years at the University of Washington Information school. Yip said kids are worried about how much their parents are distracted by technology.

Some even worried that parents might choose technology over them.

“One of the kids in the study had talked about Pepper the robot – this four foot tall humanoid robot,” Yip said. "And the kid said, ‘Oh my gosh, my parent might like this robot more than me. It could like, replace me.'”

They have similar worries about smart speakers, he said, "They asked, 'Is it going to do certain tasks that my parents might normally do, like read a story to me?'"

It’s clear that Alexa can be a useful tool to help kids be more independent, allowing them to set their alarms in the morning or choose their own music.

But even though parents want children to be independent, they still want to have close, human connections with one another.

The conversations that we're having about Alexa echo the ones people continue to have about cellphones and screens in the home. These technologies became necessities for working families and kids with homework, but they have unleashed so many issues.

In many families those issues are still not resolved. And now the smart speaker is entering the mix.

The technologies are evolving faster than we can adapt our family norms to them.

However, despite the anxiety that some parents feel, the smart speaker will probably stay in the family home. Because unlike our screens, which hide us from each other, the smart speaker is something that a family can explore together.

But the question remains — can we use a smart speaker to help our kids become more independent and curious? Or will it further isolate us from each other?

Music on Primed this week includes Ripples on an Evaporated Lake, by Raymond Scott.