Thinking about getting one of the voice control systems like Alexa for your household? Wonder how it would influence the loved ones? Want to know more about it? Through this blog post, I would like to answer those questions and raise the awareness of the problems and challenges upcoming with this entirely new Artificial Intelligence system.

This year I participated in the PyData Conference in Warsaw Copernicus Science Centre 18-21 of November. It is a meeting of the developer’s community that share and discusses the newest technology and solutions; a two-day event that has different lectures presented every half an hour, through the whole day. During one of the speeches made by Stefania Druga, researcher, and MIT Media Lab graduate, I realized how absorbed we are with the progress of technology. During her presentation, she introduced the audience to the problems of the youngest generation that is growing up with AI. She discussed how this technology was influencing them and shared the outcomes of it. I want to dig into this topic and debate how much we know and what we are doing to prepare toddlers for the changes to come.

How does Alexa work?

Let’s stick to the Alexa, currently leading smart assistant built in various Amazon devices. As you probably know, Alexa is a voice activated speaker that could do anything, from giving the weather forecast, ordering products or services, playing games, managing a smart house and many more. The whole process starts from the recording of the voice after being activated with the magic word, in this case: the name of the device. The recording then is sent to the Amazon’s Alexa Voice Services AAVS that further modify it into commands that Alexa could understand. After that, the system sends back the output that Alexa says through the use of Natural Language Generation (NLG). What’s more, the system continually learns from human data, which means that with rising popularity, raises its strength.

Voice control systems and the kids

So how this great invention of AI could harm the next generations?  We are still not sure that it will; however, we can already notice changes in their moral behavior or their interpersonal relations.

To illustrate, I would like to share a personal experience that shocked me.  When I was living in San Francisco, I visited a friend of mine who is also into technology. It was my first time at his house, so I get to know his wife Tiffany and son Casper. We ended up talking the whole evening, and when I was about to leave, I heard Alexa reading something. So, I asked what it was, and my friend told me that since they got Alexa, Casper no longer wants to listen to them reading when he is in bed, but instead uses the Virtual Assistant. He also said that he played a lot with her during the day. At first, I was laughing, but then, on my way back home, I realize that this was the first time I saw someone bounded with technology so much at such an early stage of life.

It was two years ago, and since that time there are over 47 million of those devices used across the US, not necessarily by grown-ups. That is a great number of potential kids that are growing up with AI and will be influenced by it at least in the same way Casper was. Many of the parents started to notice that and called for tracking the influence of the Voice Control Devices over the youngest generation.

Teaching kids to be polite

The first concern that appeared with the popularity of virtual assistants is that youngsters are starting to sound officious or even rude towards other people. It is due to the excessive use of the request form of communication towards assistants, like “Alexa tell me a story”, “Alexa what is the weather like.” Those changes in kids behavior lead to the group of parents requesting companies to reinforce polite speech from their kids whenever they use the device. However, here comes another question, what if by requesting proper behavior from kids towards the voice assistants we will teach them that machines have the same sensibility as humans? It would mean that they have feelings and rights to refuse a request, same as humans do.

The same example could also be interpreted the other way around. By making kids use words “please” and “thank you” towards Alexa or any other device we encourage them to see machines equal to humans since we are polite to both of them. Currently, we can’t be sure about any of those solutions. Therefore, both of the leading speaker systems for kids are based on the positive reinforcement solution. It means that they are not forcing the use of ‘magic words’ but instead encouraged to use them by giving positive responses. It seems like a reasonable decision until we figure out what is behind of it.

Alexa as a friend

The other matter of AI influencing young generation is that they can build human-like relations with them. Coming back to the Casper example I gave at the beginning of this blog; he preferred to spend time with Alexa rather than with his parents. The same thing happens to the kids bullied at school, they find real friends in devices that are always there for them to talk, joke or play. This reliability builds trust and desire to spend time with them what results in machines being able to manipulate them.

Taking as an example Marshmallow test, where kids are left alone in a room with a marshmallow that they were told not to eat — this time a doll like looking voice control system was left on the table as well. In that case, the doll manages to encourage kids to eat the marshmallow just in a matter of minutes. The research conducted by previously mentioned Stefania Druga during one of her HacKidemia labs shows how easy it is for the virtual assistant to influence a kid.

However, again on the flip side, Smart Assistant could also be useful in teaching kids how to make new friends. It is especially very beneficial for toddlers that are having problems with building connections.  They could practice it by learning jokes, hearing the stories or interesting facts that later they could use when chatting with other kids.

What’s more, any of the voice assistants requires the use of proper pronunciation of the words along with the use of professional language and names. In the end, I think it is also important to mention that every one of us had an imaginary friend at some point in their lives: it is something natural that happened to all of us, and in that case, this role could be taken over by the smart assistants.

What would this generation be like then?

I believe that the youngsters who are growing up right now would be millennials themselves. It is the first generation that’s doesn’t have memories of the world before AI. They are the ones that are no longer searching for an answer but would rather ask anything around them.

We can predict as well that they would be the first generation to grow up in symbiosis with artificial intelligence. There is already a company of Elon Musk that is developing technology for it, called Neuralink. It will speed up the bandwidth of information between our brain and the devices, to give an image, the messages will be written with a speed of thought.

He explains it with well know political domain that if you can’t beat something, join it. In that case, is the growing AI technology that we should try to be equal, too, with their help. Not only would this be the generation of what we could call Cyborgs, but they would also be the first to experience so many virtualities in their lives, like virtual Instagram models or celebrities.

Right now, all of these are just the predictions that are likely to happen, but we know for sure that this generation would perceive the world differently than any of the humans until that date. We need to prepare them adequately for that, so they will lead the world to the right directions for our civilization.

So, should I buy Alexa or not?

I believe yes, and not even necessarily with the Polite system. I tried to demonstrate by those examples above that no matter what we choose, there are both pros and cons of that choice. It is such an early stage of Virtual Assistants that we cannot predict anything specific rather than speculations. Therefore, I think that everything still depends on parents and how they are taking care of their kids.

In the end, if your child is getting hooked on Alexa or any other device, you could react to it and hide it for a week or month, that would help for sure. The same rule applies when we require our kids to use polite language. We cannot blame the speakers for ruining our child behavior. It should be parents who react respectively and teach kids the proper manners, at least this is how it still supposed to be before we solve this problem.

Thank you for reading. I encourage you to share a taught or an opinion on this topic to join the discussion on the comment section below.

The post was written by Adam Łuczak, Junior Data Scientist at Semantive.