Enrique Dans
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Enrique Dans

Smart assistants and children: common sense, please

The growing popularity of the smart assistants created by the likes of Amazon, Google, Alibaba or Xiaomi in homes around the world has sparked debate about how this new domestic environment might impact on our lives, and particularly the way we bring up our children. In the United Kingdom, some two million children already interact with these types of devices every day: so perhaps it’s appropriate to ponder the type of relationship children should have with them, as well as questioning the wisdom of allowing them to help with their homework or to play with, how they should be treated, and what happens if your children learn to say Alexa before Dad or Mom.

Amazon has already released versions of its devices aimed at children, while the BBC has launched its first voice-app for children, based on its pre-school CBeebies brand.

Ignoring the issue makes no sense: at some point, our children are going to come across smart assistants and voice interaction, particularly with smartphones, is the future. In today’s world, smart assistants and their voice recognition and interpretation capabilities are one of the best examples of artificial intelligence at its finest, and it is simply not recommendable to keep ourselves and our children away from such a hot new area of development.

Google and Amazon say their domestic assistants can teach our children manners, rewarding the use of words like “please” or “thank you”. Critics argue that we have to teach children to differentiate between machines and people. Do we have to treat smart assistants politely? No, because they aren’t slaves, and neither good manners or slavery apply to machines, no matter how much hearing a voice might confuse us. Treating a machine like a person is simply anthropomorphism. After all, we don’t type our searches on Google with a “please”, do we? Smart assistants are not there to teach manners to our children any more than they are to help them with their homework, unless we want to subcontract out parenting to them.

The question is then, how to educate children to use home assistants properly? To begin with, by teaching children that they are machines, not people, and that they have a series of uses they should understand. With younger children, things are more difficult: home assistants can be confused by the way small children speak and give results that go from the frustrating to the disastrous, which should be handled practically: applying the same precautions regarding content as on other devices, and not expecting them to teach our children how to talk. Being overly restrictive can be as dangerous as applying no controls. Instead, children need to understand that domestic assistants are a resource that can be used regularly for specific tasks. As with computers or smartphones, they are there for specific purposes. Emotional attachment to a domestic assistant suggests an uncaring home environment and is definitely cause for concern. Domestic assistants are not there to keep children amused while their parents take a breather, although they can be used, within limits, for entertainment.

As home assistants become more and more ubiquitous, we are going to have to face up to the challenge of how to children interact with them. Seeing these attendants as some kind of gimmick or treating them with too much respect, overly limiting or not limiting use (it’s easy to check usage levels) can be the source of problems. As with any new technology, there will be problems, and we’ll have to find our way. All I can say is that we apply common sense, are open and apply some control over how our children use home assistants.

(En español, aquí)



On the effects of technology and innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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Enrique Dans

Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger (in English here and in Spanish at enriquedans.com)