There’s been a lot of dithering and hand-wringing over AI-powered digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home as they become more popular and (allegedly) smarter. Much of it tends to revolve around privacy – i.e. all of the data that these things collect and the possibility that they might be ‘recording’ even when you’re not addressing them directly. But there’s also the issue of digital assistants in households with kids.
And I don’t mean your six-year-old accidentally ordering something from Amazon, but the fact that today’s toddlers are growing up with AI and automation in their homes. Will it impact their development for better or worse? Will the ability to order Alexa to do their bidding make them lazy and/or bossy?
As it happens, researchers at MIT’s Media Lab and elsewhere have already been studying these questions, and – according to this article in MIT Technology Review – the answer appears to be, “The kids are [probably] alright.”
It’s an issue worth exploring because digital assistants (in the US) tend to be most popular with the 25-34 age bracket – which inevitably includes lots of new parents or soon-to-be parents. For their kids, Alexa and similar DAs will be a normal part of life, at home and outside. And because these assistants are designed to interact and have conversations (albeit limited ones, although they’ll get better over time), they will be part of a kid’s development of social interaction skills.
In fact, children already view digital assistants as having people-like characteristics. One MIT study found that between 80% to 89% of kids ages 3-10 described digital assistants as “friendly”.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at MIT’s Media Lab (and cofounder/chief scientist of the company developing an AI robot called Jibo) told MIT Technology Review that voice-operated assistants could help build social skills and push boundaries, both of which are key to a child’s development. She also says that would be an improvement over using tech-based services like social media that can abstract the act of communication to the point that people don’t consider the consequences their interactions.
The TR article notes that there’s less certainty about the impact of digital assistants on the ability of kids to do things for themselves. Kaveri Subrahmanyam, a developmental psychologist and chair of child and family studies at California State University, Los Angeles, told TR we shouldn’t be paranoid about it, but parents should be mindful of it.
The worry that technology makes kids (and grown-ups) lazy has been around a long time – from Neil Postman’s critiques of television dumbing down public discourse and education to recent concerns that the ability to find anything on Google hurts our ability to remember things or even read a map.
To be sure, technology always impacts our development – as kids, as adults and as a society at large – and not always for the better. But aside from the fact that worst-case scenarios rarely come to pass, the negative consequences are often the result of existing and perennial human imperfections and weaknesses.
Taking the example of kids being able to do things themselves, I had a recent conversation with a domestic helper in Hong Kong who had planned to take advantage of some incidental free time, only for the son of her employer to call and inform her that his football practice was cancelled, so he needed her to stay home and make him breakfast.
“How old is the son?” I asked casually.
“Sixteen,” she replied.
I blinked. “He’s sixteen and he doesn’t know how to make his own breakfast?”
“Nope,” she shrugged.
Clearly no Alexa was involved in that anecdote. I’m not sure you can even blame Twitter or smartphones.
It’s great that researchers are studying the ways that digital assistants affect children’s development. But it’s worth keeping in mind that digital assistants are just one component of a complex digital ecosystem where almost everything we do will have a digital-interaction touchpoint – phones, speakers, toys, cars, toothbrushes, walls, whatever – and all of which will play a role in shaping children’s development. All the technologies we write about here – AI, VR/AR, robots, big data analytics, IoT, digital content, digital payments, etc – will be the default reality for kids born in the last few years. They won’t know what a world without all of these things is like.
We don’t know yet if that will be a bad thing. We know it will be a different thing, but the digital natives will be used to it. Which means that – like all previous technological ‘revolutions’ – the Digital Age will probably be a harder transition for parents of the digital natives than the natives themselves – not least because technology is evolving faster than ever.
Perhaps that’s the bigger risk of kids’ development in the age of Alexa – not that the technology will teach kids bad manners or turn them into internet trolls, but that parents will struggle to keep up with the times to ensure their kids are guided properly through the digital maelstrom so they can maintain that crucial balance between humanity and technology.