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Should we let kids play with Alexa?

Opinion

Published by:

29 May 2018

Author: Peter Maxwell

Image: Amazon Echo Dot Kids

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It is plausible to speculate that, when today’s current crop of pre-school children reach adulthood, they might argue nostalgically about the competing merits of aunt Alexa or uncle Google.

At The Future Laboratory we spent the first few months of 2017 thinking about the potential repercussions for the current generation of children growing up in homes with AI-powered assistants. The market for such conversational companions was just reaching its stride, and it was plausible to speculate that, when today’s current crop of pre-school children reach adulthood, they might reminisce about the competing merits of aunt Alexa or uncle Google.

It was already apparent that their parents might not remember these early days of domesticated AI so fondly, however. ‘I fear [not saying please to Alexa] is turning our daughter into a raging asshole,’ commented Hunter Walk, a San Francisco venture capitalist and sceptical parent. ‘Because Alexa tolerates poor manners… cognitively I’m not sure a kid gets why you can boss Alexa around but not a person.’ Add to this a whole basket of existing fears about the pervasiveness of digital technology in children’s lives and it became clear that brands operating in this space would have to adapt their strategies if they were to gain parents’ confidence.

A year later and we have now seen two of the key examples we originally profiled take opposing directions. One was Mattel’s Aristotle home hub, billed as the first assistant created specifically for kids. It claimed to grow as the child does, singing soothing sounds to calm an infant and playing literacy games to teach a toddler. The toymaker scrapped the device, due to come to market in 2018, late last year after concerted pressure from child advocacy groups, lawyers and parents. A spokeswoman for the toy manufacturer had ‘conducted an extensive review of the Aristotle product and decided that it did not fully align with Mattel’s new technology strategy’.

'Was Mattel right to pull out entirely, or is Amazon’s ‘fail better’ approach of release and respond more sensible?'

Amazon has taken a different tack with its Echo devices, releasing an Echo Dot Kids edition aimed at family householders. The new Echo also comes with a subscription to a library of children’s audiobooks, a range of voice apps from brands such as Disney and Nickelodeon, and ad-free kids playlists. The most crucial updates are those that target usage and behaviour, however, and the voice software can now include features that encourage children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when making a request, and let parents set limits on individual children’s usage.

Was Mattel right to pull out entirely, or is Amazon’s ‘fail better’ approach of release and respond more sensible? In this case, with technology whose behavioural interactions can only really be understood in the real world, but whose benefits are clear, I’d suggest the latter. The interest in this form of interface is not going to subside, and will have an impact on all markets, including toys. In truth, the argument for championing conversation-based play and learning over yet more screen time shouldn’t be hard to make. As Marika Lindholm, sociologist and founder of ESME, a site for single mums, explains: ‘If you watch a kid with the smartphone, all the bells and whistles are just so seductive and addictive. With the Echo or the Home, there is the opportunity for much more listening and interaction.’ Indeed, according to research by Childwise, 42% of children in the UK aged between nine and 16 already use voice recognition gadgets at home. Mattel had an opportunity to be a leader in this area, but failed to mount a successful defence of its ability to both innovate in the market and to do so within a moral framework.

For more on how brands can combine innovation with morally sound business models, read our Mortality Recoded macrotrend.

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