The little robot in our living room

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on January 24, 2018

Amazon Alexa is changing the way our children learn and interact. Do we need to worry about it?

“Hey, there’s something cool I want you to hear,” beams Sangeeth, my seven-year-old son, as I step into our apartment after work. It’s well past 10 pm and in ideal circumstances he would have hit the bed by 8 pm. But today, something evidently interesting made him stay up. “What’s it?” I ask. “A joke,” he replies. He quickly turns back and looks at the little table in the middle of the hall. “Alexa!” he shouts. “Tell my father the really funny joke you told me in the afternoon!” The blue circle of light on Alexa blinks and moves around. Silence, then comes the reply, “I’m not sure about that!” Sangeet is surprised, and repeats his questions. Alexa repeats her answer. Irritated, my son shouts back at the device: “You’re not smart, Alexa, you’re stupid. You can’t even remember a joke!”

For the uninitiated, Alexa is a virtual voice assistant that powers Amazon’s smart speaker Echo. Just a few weeks ago, we bought an Echo Dot, the bare-essential, basic model. Alexa is your personal assistant. Once synced with the WiFi, it can get you anything digital — stream songs, set reminders, buy from Amazon, place calls, do maths, fetch data from the web, and more. It even tells jokes.

But, as Sangeeth has just figured out, Alexa’s memory doesn’t go beyond the fetch-and-feed mode. It is an impersonal assistant, but much smarter and better than many of its ilk, such as Apple’s Siri, the Google Assistant in Google Home, Samsung’s Bixby, etc. Whether you like it or not, voice-enabled virtual assistants are now changing the way we gather information, interact, shop, share and search; disrupting many industries and inspiring enormous research in computing, social sciences, and beyond.

They’ve been around

Virtual assistants are not that new. Their history dates back to 1961 when IBM introduced the Shoebox, the world’s first digital speech recognition tool. Then in the 1970s came Harpy Program from US’ Carnegie Mellon University. The first speech recognition product for consumers in the early 1990s was ironically named Dragon Dictates. This was developed by Dragon Systems for Microsoft Windows. But what really changed the game was the arrival of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.

According to analysts, Amazon sold more than 20 million Alexa-enabled Echo units in just the third quarter of 2017. Google Home sold some five million units during the same period. This signals a phenomenal improvement in the way people embrace virtual assistance hardware. Technology market researchers estimate that the market for smart speakers alone would grow over 34 per cent by 2023, more than $11 billion from about $2.68 billion now.

Juxtapose that with the estimated growth in IoT-enabled smart home, office devices – IDC thinks that by 2021 globally, companies and individuals will spend some $1.4 trillion to buy such devices and software – and you know devices like Amazon Echo, which can run and control smart-home applications and devices (from locks to lights), are becoming a part and parcel of our daily lives.

Unlike most grown-ups, children adopt to new technology easily. Take Alexa, for instance. Within hours of getting it installed, my son figured out most of its uses. He used it to play songs, set a reminder for an evening TV show and call his grandparents in the morning. In a sense, this is helpful as the device helps him streamline and schedule his day, initiating him to a lifestyle of orderliness.

Early adulthood issues?

But psychologists may see a problem here, as the growing literature on the use of virtual assistants by children across the globe indicates. Some say such devices and technology build unwanted dependency in children by restraining their abilities to memorise, calculate and make patient efforts to get things done, which, inarguably, are essential skills they should develop to live in the society.

But is this phobia justified? Technology’s impacts on children have been fodder for much debate. Over three decades ago, in his popular work The Disappearance of Childhood, culture critic Neil Postman had discussed how technology (read television) made children become early adults. Interestingly, today, many think the ‘Frankenstein Syndrome’ which Postman talked about, whereby he meant technology having unintended consequences despite the users’ intent, is applicable to devices such as Alexa and other virtual assistants. Psychologists in advanced markets echo Postman and think technology such as virtual assistants can initiate children into adulthood earlier. For instance, Alexa can tell a child in a second what’s 1,78,967 multiplied by 2,38,87,657.

Till now, such information was available only with manual calculation possibly under adult supervision. The scope of such activities can be expanded to any realm of knowledge, such as sexual knowledge, adult conversations and so on. As things stand now, Alexa’s algortithm is not quite able to differentiate between the voices of an adult and a child.

The counter-argument

But a book released last August offers us a different take. To Siri With Love by Judith Newman, whose autistic son Gus learned to communicate with people through his chats with Siri, triggered a long debate (for and against) on the use of virtual assistants and their impact on children’s behaviour. Such technology helps children enhance their cognitive abilities, a leading psychologist tells me.

Digital assistants are not biased or judgemental. Nor are they influenced by societal prejudices. So they can help children learn about a positive, neutral society, he says. That may change, as data scientists such as Cathy O’Neil have noted. O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction looked at the Big Data phenomenon and explored how many algorithms become prisoners to inequalities of power and prejudice. So a day when virtual assistants reflect biases and prejudices may not be far.

There are also concerns of children developing a false sense of bonding with these devices. Recently, Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a study that observed how children (aged three to 10) communicated with Alexa, Google Home, Cozmo (a game-playing robot) and an app called Julie Chatbot. The children were convinced that the devices were friendly and trustworthy; so much so that they asked questions that reflected that sentiment: “Hey Alexa, how old are you? “Do you have a phone inside you?”

Another studyin 2012 by the University of Washington had a similar, interesting finding. The study, involving 90 children interacting with a “life-size robot” Robovie, found that most kids felt the robot had “mental states” and was a “social being.” When the researchers pushed Robovie into a cabinet after use, more than half the children felt that action wasn’t fair. Is this true? “I like Alexa,” Sangeeth tells me. “She doesn’t get irritated even if I interrupt her a hundred times. But you do!” Now, I am concerned. “But when you feel down or sick, will you turn to Alexa again?” I ask. “Silly, how can I? It’s a robot! And you’re my father!” he guffaws. Well, therein lies the fix.

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Published on January 24, 2018
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