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Growing up with Alexa: A child's relationship with Amazon's voice assistant

The first four words my toddler understood were "mom," "dad," "cat" and "Alexa."Cameron first recogni...

Posted: Oct 17, 2018 10:24 AM
Updated: Oct 17, 2018 10:24 AM

The first four words my toddler understood were "mom," "dad," "cat" and "Alexa."

Cameron first recognized the name of Amazon's voice assistant while sitting, covered in spaghetti sauce, in his high chair. I'd no sooner said "Alexa" than he whipped his head around to look at the Echo speaker tucked behind the potted golden pothos on the bookcase. He'd heard me say "Alexa" plenty of times before (I often wondered if he thought it was the plant responding), but this time he knew the Echo would light up and say something.

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To Cameron, now 20 months old, Alexa isn't just a virtual assistant — she's the house DJ, the reminder to take the lasagna out of the oven and the one who dims the lights when we're too tired to get off the couch. When Alexa responds a beat or so later, he smiles.

Cameron's relationship with Alexa is increasingly common, experts say, and having the word in a toddler's early language skillset isn't as surprising as you'd think.

"Any word you say a lot becomes an early word for little kids," said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, president of the International Society for Infant Studies. "You probably say, 'Alexa' often because you start a sentence with it to play a song. Anything that generates a response is a likely candidate for an early word — no matter what it is."

It's one of the main reasons why "mama" is such a good word for kids to learn early on. After all, if a child says it, someone may come and and give them a bottle. "It's a pretty good deal," said Hirsh-Pasek, also a professor of psychology at Temple University.

This is the first generation to grow up with ubiquitous AI -- a world in which almost any question answered, item purchased or whim fulfilled is possible with a command of "Alexa" or "OK, Google" or "Hey Siri." It raises profound questions about how children interact with technology, with other people, and how it might shape their interactions and development.

According to market research firm ABI, smart home devices such as Google Home and Amazon Echo will be in more than 50 million homes worldwide by the end of this year. Voice control platforms, such as Google Assistant, Apple Siri and others built into smart phones, have even greater penetration. The adoption of both is only expected to grow.

"Just as all new, successful technologies are taken for granted by each generation that has never lived without them, the technologies' existence will be part of the fabric and foundation for that generation," said Jonathan Collins, a research director at ABI. "They will either develop and refine or reject the technologies they inherit."

But a baby's interest in Alexa is linked to natural curiosity. Hirsh-Pasek likens the overall concept to a classic childhood toy, the Jack in the Box. After you initiate interaction, there's excitement, which acts as a reinforcer. Rachel Severson, a University of Montana child psychologist who has published studies on kids' interactions with AI and intelligent technology, says children think about personified technologies as something in between animate and inanimate.

"There are numerous anecdotes that young children think there's a little person inside the device or there's a person on the other end of the exchange, like a telephone," Severson said. "These illustrate that children are actively trying to figure out how to conceptualize these devices — are they alive or not alive? Is it a real person in there?"

The issue has not yet been exhaustively studied, but some research indicates children understand a device like Echo or Google Home is a piece of technology, but they also see these gadgets in psychological terms — as having emotions, as being capable of thought and friendship, and deserving of moral treatment, Severson added. She believes this sentiment will grow more pronounced as artificial intelligence grows increasingly complex and "real."

Amazon offers a ton of kid-friendly content for Echo devices, including podcasts that play bedtime stories and even audio-based games, like Disney's Cars Adventure app, which lets kids give Lightning McQueen turn-by-turn directions in a race. Earlier this year, Amazon launched a colorful Echo Dot specifically for young users.

Some parents consider the Echo an alternative to screen time amid warnings too much screen time can impact a child's weight, sleep patterns and brain development. There's some debate over whether that's true.

"I recognize parental concern about reducing screen time in accord with recommended age-appropriate limits, and many parents view home AI devices as one way to engage kids without the use of screens," Severson said. "However, I don't think there's a consensus yet on the impact on children — positive or negative."

Severson sees upsides and downsides to smart speakers. They give children a measure of autonomy in choosing music or stories, for example, but excessive interaction with them could limit the quantity and quality of human social interactions. At this point, she said, there isn't enough research to offer parents guidelines when it comes to kids and Alexa.

"These devices are too new and have been adopted so readily that we're doing a sort of natural experiment," she said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we see more child-specific design and programs on these devices largely because children were not likely the end-users developers were originally imagining. ... I think it makes sense to ask the question of what purpose is being served and does it seem like something that adds value to your life and your children's lives."

Temple University's Hirsh-Pasek warns systems like Alexa aren't sophisticated enough to understand a child and should never be used to replace human interaction.

"The biggest thing we have to remember with little people is we can't let anything come in between the human conversation," she said. "If you look at parents reading real books to kids, they break when they turn the pages and go off on side stories about how they once saw a monkey at the zoo. Research shows back and forth conversations with them is the best way they can learn."

Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor of human computer interaction at the University of Washington, agrees. She argues our interactions with these devices aren't really conversations at all, even though Amazon Echo and other smart speakers are billed as "conversational agents."

"Even adults' interactions with smart speakers are superficial, thin and lack most of the hallmarks of person-to-person conversation," Hiniker said. "Typically, developing children pick up language rapidly in the first few years of life. But this doesn't just happen because children are good at learning this skill; it also happens because adults are very good at teaching it."

And unlike adults, smart speakers aren't currently capable of conforming to a child's speech ability in real time.

"Alexa isn't going to be able to teach a child to speak, just like children can't learn to speak from TV," Hiniker said. "Even though smart speakers — unlike TV — are interactive, they are nowhere near the sophistication of a human, or more specifically, the sophistication of an adult who can instinctively coach a child in picking up her first language."

Research shows babies get to know the voices of the people around them most even before they're born. So does that mean Alexa has been in Cameron's life far longer than when he spotted her hiding behind the plant?

"I wouldn't go that far," Hirsh-Pasek said. "What babies hear in the womb is like listening to language under a swimming pool. It's not going to blow you away with clarity, but they'll notice a cadence."

Alexa may not be the richest relationship in a child's life but it's a presence that'll likely be long lasting.

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