How Voice Interfaces are infiltrating society and changing our children

Rich Merrett
Apr 12, 2018 · 6 min read

I have read many arguments that voice assistants are going to ruin society, not just because AI is going to take over the world, leading to the downfall of civilisation as we know it and the rise of the machines, but because of the way that it is affecting our children.

I am privileged enough to have two small children and a house full of voice assistants. It is amazing to think that they are never going to remember a time when they couldn’t just shout an instruction or a question into the ether and have an instantaneous response. No time wasted waiting for the adult to reach into pockets looking for a phone, unlocking the phone, waiting for the browser page to load up, type in the question, waiting for a response, and then having to read down to find the answer, just to find out how many bones a giraffe has in its neck, or some other mundane fact that children love to hear about. Oh, the answer is 7 by the way!

There are however arguments that the rise of the voice assistants is having a negative effect on today’s young. The biggest argument I have heard, and heard on repeated occasions, is how it is making children ruder. Why? Because there is no requirement for voice assistants to say please or thank you. The argument here is that because they don’t need to say please or thank you, they will then go onto school, or to their grandparents and when asking for something will have forgotten their manners. There are two responses to this argument, the first is reactionary; let’s just program the voice assistants to have a requirement of a please or thank you before performing a task, or alter the response of the voice assistant based on whether a please or thank you is heard. This is a good idea in theory, however in practice it is more difficult as any developer can attest to. The second argument is ‘My child knows the difference between a robot and a human and act accordingly’. I can attest to this argument first hand and agree with it, just as children act differently at home than they do at school, and talk differently to their parents than they do to their teachers or grandparents; children and young people know the difference between Alexa or Google Home and speaking to real tangible people. Saying please and thank you to machines is not practical for something that has been developed to save us time (you don’t see Jean Luc Picard saying please when telling the computer to put the ship on red alert).

The second issue that is often cited when criticising voice assistants and the effect they are having on children is the expectation to have information or results given to them instantaneously. Imagine the scenario, little Bobby is used to asking for the lights to be turned on, and low and behold they are turned on instantly, he asks for a fact, he is given it instantly, he asks what noise a buffalo makes, he can hear that instantly too. Little Bobby goes to school and asks his teacher for a book, the teacher must first finish dealing with the student she was dealing with previously, go across to room to retrieve the book then bring it back to little Bobby, who by this point has lost interest and become frustrated that his request was not met instantly. The argument here is that with the expectation of instant action is also flawed. Yes young people become frustrated with the lack of instantaneous reaction to their needs, however children learn that patience is a virtue and again, would not draw the parallels between asking a teacher for a task to be completed and asking a voice assistant.

The third and final argument for voice assistants ruining the youth of today is similar to the previous. If children can ask the ether any question and it can come back with the answer, when they ask a responsible adult a question and they can’t respond, they will lose respect for them. This is no different from people being able to google anything, the only difference is children are able to access the information that the Internet has to offer at a younger age (the requirement to spell or type are not a barrier to entry). The only real discussion point that I can see from this argument is that there should potentially be voice assistants in the classroom to assist teachers with the wealth of questions they get on a daily basis.

So whereas there are people who believe that Voice is destroying our young, there are others that see the immensorate potential that it presents. From an information gathering standpoint, it opens up almost any question to become accessible for almost all of society, those that can’t spell or can’t use a computer no longer have something that is preventing them gain access to information. It promotes independence and independent learning. Hearing a four year old ask Google Home what noise a camel makes because of genuine curiosity is a wonder to behold. In the same vein it is also practical, if the requirement is just for simple fact finding, then small circular devices scattered around the home are an easy way to facilitate that as opposed to having bulky computers in each room.

From a health point of view screen time has always been high on the list of things children and young people should reduce, both during the day and a nighttime. We have all been there, we need to look something up, it takes all of 30 seconds, but 2 minutes later you still have your phone in your hand. Looking something up on the phone can lead to looking something else up, or clicking an advert, before you know it you’re buying a purple ukulele and signing up to pottery lessons. Reducing screen time for young people is a challenge especially with the rise of portable devices. Voice however allows for one shot questions that can be asked and answered in a matter of seconds with no requirement of a screen. Even the new multi modal voice interfaces i.e. the Amazon Echo Show bring up a snippet of information and don’t prompt you to click any further.

Finally, and perhaps the greatest thing that Voice is doing for society, and particularly young people, is improving annunciation. A voice assistant won’t respond to a mumbling teenager, nor will it respond to a young person talking in text speak or slang. For voice assistants to understand you, you must project and speak clearly. This is leading to improved enunciation amongst not just young people but all users of voice assistants which will in the long run lead to better communication between individuals when they are not having a conversation with a voice assistant.

Voice as a interface is here to stay, and our young people will be some of the first to adopt it. As long as lines can be drawn between what is a robot and what is a human it will not have a negative impact on children. Children should embrace the new technology, they are the ones that will shape the way it is used in the future.


Veni Loqui are voice design specialists formed to create bespoke solutions for Alexa and Google Home. We are working to leverage Voice in the Health and Social Care sectors. For more information contact info@veni-loqui.com

Rich Merrett

Written by

Co-Founder @VeniLoqui, #voicefirst enthusiast, Conversational Designer and Organiser of Cambridge Alexa Developers Meetup. EchoDad Email:rmerrett@veni-loqui.com

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