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  • Writer's pictureJunior Oliveira

ALEXA: Could my kid's best friend be a robot? The RISKS of using smart speakers at home.

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

You have probably heard about a story of a 6-year-old boy who was busted for cheating on homework with Alexa. For many people, it was just a funny fact of common everyday life surrounded by technology, but analysing the whole picture, in which Alexa and other smart speakers are widely used around the world, there is a question mark after this event: Are we sure that Artificial Intelligence systems can be an effective honest tool for our child's intellectual enrichment? And for me as a parent, another question comes up: how will AI devices affect our children?

Before going deeper into this topic, I would like to present a quick overview of AI assistants. Currently, there are several different versions of home assistants available: Alexa (Amazon) Google Assistant (Google),  Siri (Apple) and many other similar devices. According to eMarketer Digital Market Research Company, smart speakers are most widely used in the US (26.0% of Internet users); the UK is the second in this worldwide ranking with 22.4% households users, followed by Germany (17.2%), France (14.0%) and China (10.0%) among other countries. Another relevant fact: a recent NPR study points out that smart speaker sales grew 78% last year.

Personally I have Alexa at home and I can say that with proper adult supervision it has many effective features and this smart speaker is multi-function, meaning we can use other features to integrate them into home security settings, connection to my smartphone system, and it can help me when I am cooking, with reminders regarding my daily tasks and my son having fun asking for the song “Down To Earth” by Peter Gabriel (the Wall-E film soundtrack) and several other functions. And in the short term, I have not seen any possible negative effects of using a smart speaker at home, but as I said, under adult control (all parental controls are set). This smart speaker is in the main room of our house, meaning an adult is supervising it all the time.

Recently, I attended a seminar about children using technology. I was completely shocked when one of the guest speakers (a head manager of a marketing company in the UK) said that her son spends hours chatting with Alexa, and the most concerning thing that I have heard from her was, “for me, this is the new world and it is great: I am so busy when I am at home, that I don’t mind my child spending a couple of hours interacting with Alexa, so I can work and he is able to learn and have fun by himself in his bedroom.” MY GOSH (sorry for the capital letters, it is just to express my indignation)! There are so many critical issues from this statement, starting with: where is the reference regarding the importance of the invisible bond between parent and children? It is exactly a picture of a real-life busy mum relying on Alexa as a perfect electronic babysitter. The wellbeing specialist Rebecca Wallersteiner (Netdoctor Online Channel) states “Inevitably, children who do not have a strong bond with a parent figure are more likely to encounter problems, such as learning difficulties, low self-esteem, and anti-social behavior”

Another important consideration is that Alexa, like the other digital devices, is an incredible source of information, and children can access it easily to ask sensitive questions that should be mediated through adults, such as  “how babies are made?” or “what happens when people die?” or “does Santa Claus exist?”. This might sound a little conservative, taking into account that a child with a minimum level of digital literacy can also look for this information on Google, but I still think that smart devices’ capability of listening and speaking can be a concern for parents, thus, only a human adult (parents and carers) is able to evaluate the maturity level of child, and then answer this kind of question.

To figure out issues related to “sensitive questions” and also to include some extra entertainment features in Alexa, last year the giant Amazon launched the Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition, which is basically an extension of Alexa with some functionalities for interacting with children, and of course this raised more debates in which cybersecurity specialists and psychologists pointed out the possible consequences. Basically, psychologists raised concerns around social interactions, as Alexa can be seen by a child as a real “friend”, and can affect a child's development by creating the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Also, technology might interfere with boredom, a condition children should learn to overcome via their own imaginations, among others.

Regarding cybersecurity, a British security researcher, Mark Barnes, revealed that hackers could install malware on smart speakers meaning that all private information regarding your family routine could be stolen. According to Common Sense, this is an actual concern: “if you have an Amazon or Google account, you've already accepted some of the privacy risks of online life”. The American Newspaper The Hill just published an article in which it explains that Lawmakers and public interest groups are asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids, arguing that the smart device is violating children’s privacy by collecting and storing their data without meaningful control by parents.

If you have Alexa, you can find here the link to access the official instructions to set up its parental control, see how to put it into “safe mode”. Also, I would like to share with you some general tips about how to manage the process of using AI at home; I found these tips at Spark, a Counselling Service Company, which has prepared some advice on this matter:

1- Set some ground rules - When introducing new technology to the home, set some rules on how kids are and are not allowed to use it. For example, explain the difference between asking Alexa for something and how they would ask another adult or child for something.

2- Get them to read books - Try to avoid allowing kids to solely learn via the Internet. Get back to reading encyclopedias and atlases, and taking the occasional trip to your local library.

3- Use your own knowledge - Explain and educate them with the knowledge you have. Enjoy the opportunity to spend time and bond with them.

4- Learn together on the Internet - Where the Internet is the best or only option for learning, sit with them and be available to answer other questions. Discuss what they have learned and what else they might want to find out about.

5- Limit time  Limit use of intelligent systems by younger children, particularly when they are developing their language and communication skills.

6- Use parental controls - Update parental controls on your web browsers and intelligent speakers. Unless you have controls in place – for example, turning off voice purchases in Alexa – your kids could be ordering toys galore and enough pizza to feed the whole street.

Some final words:  children need human interaction to thrive, so there is no reason to replace or displace the presence of parents (or humans) in their lives - they need our knowledge and our guidance. Reflecting on the future, I would not be surprised if “Alexa” becomes the most common first word among babies in the coming decade. One of the main ethical points related to the principles of robotics is that any human being who interacts with a robot must be aware of that. This topic definitively brings up several intriguing questions about something that has been in people's imagination for a long time.  

I  hope you found this post useful and informative.

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