Growing up with Alexa: A child's relationship with Amazon's voice assistant

The first four words my toddler understood were "mom," "dad," "cat" and "Alexa."Cameron first recogni...

Posted: Oct 17, 2018 11:24 AM
Updated: Oct 17, 2018 11:24 AM

The first four words my toddler understood were "mom," "dad," "cat" and "Alexa."

Cameron first recognized the name of Amazon's voice assistant while sitting, covered in spaghetti sauce, in his high chair. I'd no sooner said "Alexa" than he whipped his head around to look at the Echo speaker tucked behind the potted golden pothos on the bookcase. He'd heard me say "Alexa" plenty of times before (I often wondered if he thought it was the plant responding), but this time he knew the Echo would light up and say something.

Alphabet Inc

Amazon.com Inc

Artificial intelligence

Business and industry sectors

Business, economy and trade

Children

Companies

Computer science and information technology

Demographic groups

Families and children

Family members and relatives

Google Inc

Infants and toddlers

Population and demographics

Society

Technology

Voice and virtual assistants

To Cameron, now 20 months old, Alexa isn't just a virtual assistant — she's the house DJ, the reminder to take the lasagna out of the oven and the one who dims the lights when we're too tired to get off the couch. When Alexa responds a beat or so later, he smiles.

Cameron's relationship with Alexa is increasingly common, experts say, and having the word in a toddler's early language skillset isn't as surprising as you'd think.

"Any word you say a lot becomes an early word for little kids," said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, president of the International Society for Infant Studies. "You probably say, 'Alexa' often because you start a sentence with it to play a song. Anything that generates a response is a likely candidate for an early word — no matter what it is."

It's one of the main reasons why "mama" is such a good word for kids to learn early on. After all, if a child says it, someone may come and and give them a bottle. "It's a pretty good deal," said Hirsh-Pasek, also a professor of psychology at Temple University.

This is the first generation to grow up with ubiquitous AI -- a world in which almost any question answered, item purchased or whim fulfilled is possible with a command of "Alexa" or "OK, Google" or "Hey Siri." It raises profound questions about how children interact with technology, with other people, and how it might shape their interactions and development.

According to market research firm ABI, smart home devices such as Google Home and Amazon Echo will be in more than 50 million homes worldwide by the end of this year. Voice control platforms, such as Google Assistant, Apple Siri and others built into smart phones, have even greater penetration. The adoption of both is only expected to grow.

"Just as all new, successful technologies are taken for granted by each generation that has never lived without them, the technologies' existence will be part of the fabric and foundation for that generation," said Jonathan Collins, a research director at ABI. "They will either develop and refine or reject the technologies they inherit."

But a baby's interest in Alexa is linked to natural curiosity. Hirsh-Pasek likens the overall concept to a classic childhood toy, the Jack in the Box. After you initiate interaction, there's excitement, which acts as a reinforcer. Rachel Severson, a University of Montana child psychologist who has published studies on kids' interactions with AI and intelligent technology, says children think about personified technologies as something in between animate and inanimate.

"There are numerous anecdotes that young children think there's a little person inside the device or there's a person on the other end of the exchange, like a telephone," Severson said. "These illustrate that children are actively trying to figure out how to conceptualize these devices — are they alive or not alive? Is it a real person in there?"

The issue has not yet been exhaustively studied, but some research indicates children understand a device like Echo or Google Home is a piece of technology, but they also see these gadgets in psychological terms — as having emotions, as being capable of thought and friendship, and deserving of moral treatment, Severson added. She believes this sentiment will grow more pronounced as artificial intelligence grows increasingly complex and "real."

Amazon offers a ton of kid-friendly content for Echo devices, including podcasts that play bedtime stories and even audio-based games, like Disney's Cars Adventure app, which lets kids give Lightning McQueen turn-by-turn directions in a race. Earlier this year, Amazon launched a colorful Echo Dot specifically for young users.

Some parents consider the Echo an alternative to screen time amid warnings too much screen time can impact a child's weight, sleep patterns and brain development. There's some debate over whether that's true.

"I recognize parental concern about reducing screen time in accord with recommended age-appropriate limits, and many parents view home AI devices as one way to engage kids without the use of screens," Severson said. "However, I don't think there's a consensus yet on the impact on children — positive or negative."

Severson sees upsides and downsides to smart speakers. They give children a measure of autonomy in choosing music or stories, for example, but excessive interaction with them could limit the quantity and quality of human social interactions. At this point, she said, there isn't enough research to offer parents guidelines when it comes to kids and Alexa.

"These devices are too new and have been adopted so readily that we're doing a sort of natural experiment," she said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we see more child-specific design and programs on these devices largely because children were not likely the end-users developers were originally imagining. ... I think it makes sense to ask the question of what purpose is being served and does it seem like something that adds value to your life and your children's lives."

Temple University's Hirsh-Pasek warns systems like Alexa aren't sophisticated enough to understand a child and should never be used to replace human interaction.

"The biggest thing we have to remember with little people is we can't let anything come in between the human conversation," she said. "If you look at parents reading real books to kids, they break when they turn the pages and go off on side stories about how they once saw a monkey at the zoo. Research shows back and forth conversations with them is the best way they can learn."

Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor of human computer interaction at the University of Washington, agrees. She argues our interactions with these devices aren't really conversations at all, even though Amazon Echo and other smart speakers are billed as "conversational agents."

"Even adults' interactions with smart speakers are superficial, thin and lack most of the hallmarks of person-to-person conversation," Hiniker said. "Typically, developing children pick up language rapidly in the first few years of life. But this doesn't just happen because children are good at learning this skill; it also happens because adults are very good at teaching it."

And unlike adults, smart speakers aren't currently capable of conforming to a child's speech ability in real time.

"Alexa isn't going to be able to teach a child to speak, just like children can't learn to speak from TV," Hiniker said. "Even though smart speakers — unlike TV — are interactive, they are nowhere near the sophistication of a human, or more specifically, the sophistication of an adult who can instinctively coach a child in picking up her first language."

Research shows babies get to know the voices of the people around them most even before they're born. So does that mean Alexa has been in Cameron's life far longer than when he spotted her hiding behind the plant?

"I wouldn't go that far," Hirsh-Pasek said. "What babies hear in the womb is like listening to language under a swimming pool. It's not going to blow you away with clarity, but they'll notice a cadence."

Alexa may not be the richest relationship in a child's life but it's a presence that'll likely be long lasting.

Terre Haute
Cloudy
52° wxIcon
Hi: 67° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 52°
Robinson
Cloudy
51° wxIcon
Hi: 69° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 51°
Indianapolis
Cloudy
53° wxIcon
Hi: 72° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 53°
Rockville
Cloudy
51° wxIcon
Hi: 65° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 51°
Casey
Cloudy
52° wxIcon
Hi: 66° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 52°
Brazil
Cloudy
52° wxIcon
Hi: 67° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 52°
Marshall
Cloudy
52° wxIcon
Hi: 66° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 52°
Rain, Breezy & Much Cooler
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

Latest Video

Image

Parke Heritage Fountain Central

Image

North Vermillion Wins a Close One Over Seeger

Image

Casey Dominates Marshall

Image

Vin Lincoln Jasper

Image

South Vermillion Cruises to Victory over Attica

Image

Linton South Putnam

Image

RP Covington

Image

Sullivan-West Vigo

Image

North Daviess-Springs Valley

Image

Vigo County man wins bricklayer battle in Illinois

WTHI Events

 

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Cases: 1663364

Reported Deaths: 27810
CountyCasesDeaths
Cook63054211157
DuPage1073121374
Will905601118
Lake794341074
Kane67913866
Winnebago40662558
Madison39811590
St. Clair36119591
McHenry34360321
Champaign26817195
Peoria26730368
Sangamon25584283
McLean22826216
Tazewell20506330
Rock Island18679358
Kankakee17763246
Kendall16074112
Macon15178250
LaSalle14943285
Vermilion14137198
Adams13055152
DeKalb12056133
Williamson11989174
Whiteside8228180
Jackson805794
Boone785683
Coles7823121
Ogle751087
Grundy730385
Franklin7267113
Knox7176169
Clinton7080102
Macoupin6877104
Marion6857143
Henry659076
Effingham654499
Jefferson6477142
Livingston593297
Stephenson576392
Woodford572692
Randolph551299
Christian530082
Monroe5229100
Fulton519274
Morgan502598
Logan491474
Montgomery486179
Lee476060
Bureau440789
Saline431769
Perry430274
Fayette428163
Iroquois417077
McDonough371160
Shelby341847
Jersey333953
Crawford329230
Lawrence327732
Douglas324037
Union304948
Wayne299161
Richland278257
White277733
Hancock271835
Cass264230
Clark264039
Pike262357
Clay256753
Bond254524
Edgar254549
Warren242265
Ford241858
Carroll235138
Moultrie227633
Johnson223531
Wabash216119
Jo Daviess214129
Massac213548
Mason211452
Washington211328
De Witt204130
Greene203940
Mercer201735
Piatt199814
Cumberland188226
Menard170913
Jasper160121
Marshall140721
Hamilton132922
Brown10589
Schuyler105510
Pulaski103311
Edwards102517
Stark80928
Gallatin7848
Alexander71012
Scott7106
Henderson69614
Calhoun6832
Hardin59216
Putnam5594
Pope5436
Unassigned1662433
Out of IL100

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Cases: 994079

Reported Deaths: 16225
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1340942097
Lake657221150
Allen57000791
Hamilton45877460
St. Joseph43856606
Elkhart35467502
Vanderburgh31922473
Tippecanoe27644256
Johnson24778440
Hendricks23603353
Porter22676362
Madison18488404
Clark18336248
Vigo17227300
Monroe15089197
LaPorte14957249
Delaware14916255
Howard14547286
Kosciusko12115147
Hancock11562175
Bartholomew11413179
Warrick11205188
Floyd10966214
Wayne10812247
Grant9850216
Morgan9346176
Boone8793115
Dubois8194129
Dearborn813092
Henry8098149
Noble7911105
Marshall7767134
Cass7451119
Lawrence7368168
Shelby7085114
Jackson689887
Gibson6468113
Harrison639691
Huntington628799
Knox6262105
DeKalb621796
Montgomery6166109
Miami584894
Putnam572177
Clinton564571
Whitley556355
Steuben548772
Wabash5229101
Jasper517675
Jefferson504095
Ripley491684
Adams471373
Daviess4586112
Scott432968
Greene420496
Wells418087
Clay417060
White413461
Decatur4104101
Fayette401286
Jennings382060
Posey373643
Washington351048
LaGrange350978
Randolph339399
Spencer335842
Fountain331058
Sullivan326352
Starke309968
Owen309369
Fulton303166
Orange289762
Jay277144
Perry263552
Franklin261642
Carroll257632
Rush256732
Vermillion253554
Parke229126
Pike227143
Tipton224959
Blackford187040
Pulaski180354
Crawford157522
Newton155148
Benton150117
Brown142747
Martin137119
Switzerland133411
Warren119916
Union106315
Ohio83912
Unassigned0531