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Last year, a couple in Britain reported that their child’s first word did not come as the expected “mama” or “dada.” Rather, Lottie Ledger and Mark Brady revealed to the Caters News Agency that their kid uttered “Alexa” as his first word. It may seem shocking and even sad that Alexa, the name of the artificial intelligence driven, virtual voice assistant in Amazon’s Echo smart speaker system, would be a child’s first word. Parents often like to tell their children about their first words. However, the fact that “Alexa” would figure in baby’s first words indicates how frequently people said “Alexa” around the infant and warrants the question of how the continuous presence of a virtual assistant may affect child development. Since its launch in November of 2014, over thirty-nine million Americans or 16% of the population have Alexa in their homes (techcrunch.com).
The broad and expanding presence of virtual assistants has caused researchers and child safety advocates to react. The Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC), a child development and privacy advocacy group founded to protect children from advertising, has a number of victories such as preventing “Hasbro from producing a line of dolls for six-year-old girls based on the Pussy Cat Dolls, a burlesque troupe turned singing group known for its sexualized songs and dances,” and blocking the introduction of advertising on school busses in thirty states. (commercialfreechildhood.org/history-and-highlights). In May 2018, CCFC urged parents not to buy the kid version of Amazon Echo called Amazon Echo Dot Kids, warning that service poses “significant threats to children’s wellbeing and privacy.” (David Monahan, CCFC) The warning from CCFC contains warnings from experts such as Dr. Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT who performs research in the Social Studies of Science and Technology. She warns that children that form faux-relationships with Alexa may do so at the expense of real relationships with people. Additionally, the warning against Alexa for kids draws on the expertise of the developmental behavior pediatrician from the University of Michigan, Dr. Jenny Radesky. She warns that children who rely on Alexa to entertain them whenever bored will not learn to cope with distress tolerance and using their own initiative to deal with their boredom creatively.
The massive influx of Alexa and other virtual assistants into the homes of millions of people in the short span of only four years poses the question of how the omnipresence of artificial intelligence will affect people’s lives and more specifically the development of children who have no memory of life without an assistant that will always answer their requests. A number of researchers and advocates have warned about the detrimental affects of Alexa on childhood development. Much of the inference comes from research and clinical experience, but no pointed, conclusive study on the effects of Alexa on children has been published. In an article on CNN Business by Samantha Murphy Kelly titled,” Growing up with Alexa: A Child's Relationship with Amazon's Voice Assistant,” the author references Rachel Severson, Ph.D. who studies child psychology in light of artificial intelligence and robotics as saying that there in no consensus yet on the positive or negative impact of artificial intelligence devices on children. With a lack of solid research, parents concerned about their children's development should emphasize human interaction, moderate exposure to virtual assistants, and maybe tone down the use of virtual assistants if your child says “Alexa” before “mama.”
Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.
You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.