Ro­bots and your kids

How voice-ac­ti­vated as­sis­tants are shap­ing chil­dren

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL S. ROSENWALD

Kids adore their new ro­bot sib­lings. As mil­lions of Amer­i­can fam­i­lies buy ro­botic voice as­sis­tants to turn off lights, or­der piz­zas and fetch movie times, chil­dren are ea­gerly co-opt­ing the gad­gets to set­tle din­ner ta­ble dis­putes, an­swer home­work ques­tions and en­ter­tain friends at sleep­over par­ties.

Many par­ents have been star­tled and in­trigued by the way th­ese dis­em­bod­ied, know-itall voices — Ama­zon’s Alexa, Google Home, Mi­crosoft’s Cor­tana — are af­fect­ing their kids’ be­hav­ior, mak­ing them more cu­ri­ous but also, at times, far less po­lite.

In just two years, the prom­ise of the tech­nol­ogy has al­ready ex­ceeded the mar­ket­ing come­ons. The dis­abled are us­ing voice as­sis­tants to con­trol their homes, or­der gro­ceries and lis­ten to books. Care­givers to the el­derly say the de­vices help with de­men­tia, re­mind­ing users what day it is or when to take medicine.

For chil­dren, the po­ten­tial for trans­for­ma­tive in­ter­ac­tions are just as dra­matic — at home and in class­rooms. But psy­chol­o­gists, tech­nol­o­gists and lin­guists are only be­gin­ning to pon­der the pos­si­ble per­ils of sur­round­ing kids with ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, par­tic­u­larly as they tra­verse im­por­tant stages of so­cial and lan­guage


“How they re­act and treat this non­hu­man en­tity is, to me, the big­gest ques­tion,” said San­dra Calvert, a Ge­orge­town Univer­sity psy­chol­o­gist and di­rec­tor of the Chil­dren’s Dig­i­tal Me­dia Cen­ter. “And how does that sub­se­quently af­fect fam­ily dy­nam­ics and so­cial in­ter­ac­tions with other peo­ple?”

With an es­ti­mated 25 mil­lion voice as­sis­tants ex­pected to sell this year at $40 to $180 — up from 1.7 mil­lion in 2015 — there are even ram­i­fi­ca­tions for the di­a­per crowd.

Toy gi­ant Mat­tel re­cently an­nounced the birth of Aris­to­tle, a home baby mon­i­tor launch­ing this sum­mer that “com­forts, teaches and en­ter­tains” us­ing AI from Mi­crosoft. As chil­dren get older, they can ask or an­swer ques­tions. The com­pany says, “Aris­to­tle was specif­i­cally de­signed to grow up with a child.”

Boost­ers of the tech­nol­ogy say kids typ­i­cally learn to ac­quire in­for­ma­tion us­ing the pre­vail­ing tech­nol­ogy of the mo­ment — from the li­brary card cat­a­logue, to Google, to brief con­ver­sa­tions with friendly, all-know­ing voices. But what if th­ese gad­gets lead chil­dren, whose faces are al­ready glued to screens, fur­ther away from sit­u­a­tions where they learn im­por­tant in­ter­per­sonal skills?

It’s un­clear whether any of the com­pa­nies in­volved are even pay­ing at­ten­tion to this is­sue.

Ama­zon did not return a re­quest for com­ment. A spokes­woman for the Part­ner­ship for AI, a new or­ga­ni­za­tion that in­cludes Google, Ama­zon, Mi­crosoft and other com­pa­nies work­ing on voice as­sis­tants, said no­body was avail­able to an­swer ques­tions.

“Th­ese de­vices don’t have emo­tional in­tel­li­gence,” said Al­li­son Druin, a Univer­sity of Mary­land pro­fes­sor who stud­ies how chil­dren use tech­nol­ogy. “They have fac­tual in­tel­li­gence.”

Chil­dren cer­tainly en­joy their com­pany, re­fer­ring to Alexa like just an­other fam­ily mem­ber.

“We like to ask her a lot of re­ally ran­dom things,” said Emer­son Labovich, a fifth-grader in Bethesda, Md., who pesters Alexa with her older brother Asher.

This win­ter, Emer­son asked her al­most ev­ery day for help count­ing down the days un­til a trip to the Wizard­ing World of Harry Pot­ter in Flor­ida.

“She can also rap and rhyme,” Emer­son said.

To­day’s chil­dren will be shaped by AI much like their grand­par­ents were shaped by new de­vices called tele­vi­sion. But you couldn’t talk with a TV.

Ken Yar­mosh, a 36-year-old North­ern Vir­ginia app de­vel­oper and founder of Savvy Apps has mul­ti­ple voice as­sis­tants in his fam­ily’s home, in­clud­ing those made by Google and Ama­zon. (The Wash­ing­ton Post is owned by Ama­zon founder Jef­frey P. Be­zos, whose mid­dle name is Pre­ston, ac­cord­ing to Alexa.)

Yar­mosh’s 2-year-old son has been so en­thralled by Alexa that he to speak with coast­ers and other cylin­dri­cal ob­jects that look like Ama­zon’s de­vice. Mean­while, Yar­mosh’s now 5-year-old son, in com­par­ing his two as­sis­tants, came to be­lieve Google knew him bet­ter.

“Alexa isn’t smart enough for me,” he’d say, ask­ing ran­dom ques­tions that his par­ents couldn’t an­swer, like how many miles it is to China. (“China is 7,248 miles away,” Google Home says, “as the crow flies.”)

In talk­ing that way about a de­vice plugged into a wall, Yar­mosh’s son was an­thro­po­mor­phiz­ing it — which means to “as­cribe hu­man fea­tures to some­thing,” Alexa hap­pily ex­plains. Hu­mans do this a lot, Calvert said. We do it with dogs, dress­ing them in cos­tumes on Hal­loween. We name boats. And when we en­counter ro­bots, we — es­pe­cially chil­dren — treat them as near equals.

In 2012, Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton re­searchers pub­lished re­sults of a study in­volv­ing 90 chil­dren in­ter­act­ing with a life-size ro­bot named Robovie. Most kids thought Robovie had “men­tal states” and was a “so­cial be­ing.” When Robovie was shoved into a closet, more than half felt it wasn’t fair. A sim­i­lar emo­tional con­nec­tries tion is tak­ing hold with Alexa and other as­sis­tants — even for par­ents.

“It’s def­i­nitely be­come part of our lives,” said Emer­son’s mother, Laura Labovich, who then quickly cor­rected her­self: “She’s def­i­nitely part of our lives.”

The prob­lem, Druin said, is that this emo­tional con­nec­tion sets up ex­pec­ta­tions for chil­dren that de­vices can’t or weren’t de­signed to meet, caus­ing con­fu­sion, frus­tra­tion and even changes in the way kids talk or in­ter­act with adults.

Yar­mosh’s son thought Alexa couldn’t un­der­stand him, but it was the al­go­rithms that couldn’t grasp the pitch in his voice or the way chil­dren for­mu­late ques­tions. Ed­u­ca­tors in­tro­duc­ing th­ese de­vices into class­rooms and school li­braries have en­coun­tered the same is­sue.

“If Alexa doesn’t un­der­stand the ques­tion, is it Alexa’s fault or might it be the ques­tion’s fault?” said Gwyneth Jones, a li­brar­ian who uses Ama­zon’s de­vice at Mur­ray Hill Mid­dle School in Lau­rel. “Peo­ple are not al­ways go­ing to get what they are say­ing, so it’s im­por­tant that they learn how to ask good ques­tions.”

Naomi S. Baron, an Amer­i­can Univer­sity lin­guist who stud­ies dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, is among those who won­der whether the de­vices, even as they get smarter, will push chil­dren to value sim­plis­tic lan­guage — and sim­plis­tic in­quiries — over nu­ance and com­plex ques­tions.

Ask­ing Alexa, “How do you ask a good ques­tion?” pro­duces this an­swer: “I wasn’t able to un­der­stand the ques­tion I heard.” But she is able to an­swer a sim­ple de­riv­a­tive: “What is a ques­tion?”

“A lin­guis­tic ex­pres­sion used to make a re­quest for in­for­ma­tion,” she says.

And then there is the po­ten­tial rewiring of adult-child com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Although Mat­tel’s new as­sis­tant will have a set­ting forc­ing chil­dren to say “please” when ask­ing for in­for­ma­tion, the as­sis­tants made by Google, Ama­zon and oth­ers are de­signed so users can quickly — and bluntly — ask ques­tions. Par­ents are notic­ing some not-so-sub­tle changes in their chil­dren.

In a blog post last year, a Cal­i­for­nia ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist wrote that his 4-year-old daugh­ter thought Alexa was the best speller in the house. “But I fear it’s also turn­ing our daugh­ter into a rag­ing a------,” Hunter Walk wrote. “Be­cause Alexa tol­er­ates poor man­ners.”

To ask her a ques­tion, all you need to do is say her name, fol­lowed by the query. No “please.” And no “thank you” be­fore ask­ing a fol­low-up.

“Cog­ni­tively I’m not sure a kid gets why you can boss Alexa around but not a per­son,” Walk wrote. “At the very least, it cre­ates pat­terns and re­in­force­ment that so long as your dic­tion is good, you can get what you want with­out niceties.”

Jones, the li­brar­ian, has wit­nessed the dig­i­tal equiv­a­lent of ev­ery­body ask­ing a ques­tion at the same time.

“You all are be­ing re­ally pushy,” she’ll say, as Alexa de­clares over and over that she doesn’t un­der­stand. “You’re con­fus­ing her. One at a time, just like a per­son.”

The per­sonal yet trans­ac­tional na­ture of the re­la­tion­ship is ap­peal­ing to chil­dren and teenagers. Par­ents (in­clud­ing this re­porter) have no­ticed that queries pre­vi­ously made to adults are shift­ing to as­sis­tants, par­tic­u­larly for home­work — spell­ing words, sim­ple math, his­tor­i­cal facts.

Or take the weather, par­tic­u­larly in win­ter. In­stead of ask­ing Mom or Dad the tem­per­a­ture that day, chil­dren just go to the de­vice, treat­ing the an­swer as gospel.

Up­side: No more fights over what the tem­per­a­ture will re­ally be and what’s ap­pro­pri­ate to wear. Down­side: Kids will go to their par­ents less, with both sides los­ing out on time­worn in­ter­ac­tions.

“There can be a lot of un­in­tended con­se­quences to in­ter­ac­tions with th­ese de­vices that mimic con­ver­sa­tion,” said Kate Dar­ling, an MIT pro­fes­sor who stud­ies how hu­mans in­ter­act with ro­bots. “We don’t know what all of them are yet.”

But most re­searchers, ed­u­ca­tors and par­ents — even some kids — al­ready agree that th­ese de­vices need to be put in their place, just like a know-it-all si­b­ling.

Jones, the li­brar­ian, puts Alexa away for a cou­ple of weeks at a time, so her stu­dents don’t rely on her too much. Yar­mosh, who re­cently launched a pro­ject cu­rat­ing on­line videos for kids, is keep­ing the as­sis­tants out of his chil­dren’s rooms. Emer­son and her brother take a school play­ground ap­proach.

“Alexa,” they’ll say, “you’re such a butt.”


ABOVE: Laura Labovich, cen­ter, and her chil­dren Asher, right, 13, and Emer­son, 10, in their Bethesda, Md., home, with an Alexa-en­abled Ama­zon Echo in the fore­ground.


LEFT: “We like to ask her a lot of re­ally ran­dom things,” Emer­son said of the fam­ily’s Alexa. “She can also rap and rhyme.”

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