Should You Leave Your Child Alone With A Voice Assistant?
Young children appear to be having difficulty communicating with smart toys
By Kari Paul, MARKETWATCH
August 11, 2018
“Siri, can you read me a bedtime story?”
Kids are increasingly using voice technology, but they are having difficulty getting their message across, a study released this week from the University of Washington found. Children communicate with technology differently than adults do. Machines that don’t understand a child’s prompt may shut them down too quickly, the study showed.
The researchers said voice-activated assistants are not designed for children’s language needs. “There has to be more than ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that,’” co-author Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor at the UW Information School said. “Voice interfaces now are designed in a cut-and-dried way that needs more nuance. Adults don’t talk to children and assume there will be perfect communication. That’s relevant here.”
Some toy manufacturers have already seen an untapped children’s market in voice-activated virtual assistants.
Critics wonder whether kids should be using these machines at all. Some of the largest concerns experts have are privacy-related. With theft and fraud affecting the emails, social security numbers, and identity information of more than 1 million kids a year some worry companies should not be collecting voice data as well.
Some toy manufacturers see an untapped children’s market in voice-activated virtual assistants. Earlier this year, Amazon AMZN, -1.98% announced a $79.99 device, Echo Dot Kids Edition with songs, bedtime limits and educational Q&As. Child psychologists have expressed concern that such devices will establish a stronger bond between kids and their gadgets rather than their parents. (Amazon and Google did not respond to request for comment.)
Some voice assistants makers have already seen an untapped market in children. Earlier this year, Amazon AMZN, -1.98% announced a $79.99 device, Echo Dot Kids Edition with songs, bedtime limits and educational Q&As. Child psychologists have expressed concern that such devices will establish a stronger bond between kids and their gadgets rather than their parents.
But parents also see the benefit in having toy robots help them out with their duties. There’s a new generation of toys designed to communicate with children, including a $100 Wi-Fi-connected monkey to tell your children a bedtime story, a $120 toy dinosaur that’s trained to ask questions starting with, “Why?” and a digital personal assistant still development that reminds them to do their homework, or turn out their lights.
“It’s not wrong for parents to allow kids to interact with home assistants,” said Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor at digital parenting resource Common Sense. “But parents should undertake this knowing that there are some consequences — good, bad, neutral, and some we don’t know yet — of training the home assistant to learn the different voices of different members of the household.”
In December 2017, consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog implored the FTC to better-regulate digital assistants like Amazon Echo AMZN, -1.98% and Google Home GOOG, -2.32% charging them with violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which bars tech companies from collecting personal data from children for marketing purposes without a parent’s consent.
It’s illegal for tech companies to collect personal data from children for marketing without a parent’s consent.
The group questioned whether a parent could consent if the child began speaking to a machine without their knowledge. “COPPA appears to be violated unless a child’s spoken words being recorded and analyzed by Google Home or Amazon Echo involve a conversation with a parent. How else could consent have been given?” the group said in the letter.
Parents concerned about privacy should always delete data from AI devices after use, said Knorr, though many companies don’t make it clear whether such data is also deleted from the servers. She said people should be aware that some of these devices have settings that allow them to learn about a child’s voice the more it listens. Turning these off can reduce the amount of information collected.
Knorr said she would like companies “to be more transparent about the information they collect, what they use it for, much of which is still very obscure and, we feel, unfair to the consumers who are buying into the service and allowing the device into their homes.”