Are robots taking over the basics of parenting?

At what point will virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa for kids cross the line from helping parents to doing their job?

Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

I’m growing increasingly worried about our evolving relationship with technology, because we seem to be repeating a pattern over and over again: We have an easy time introducing new technologies into more areas of our lives before having a chance to properly think about the implications. Because those conversations are never fully fleshed out, we get pulled in opposite directions.

Take, for example, the fact that as we’re in the middle of an online privacy crisis, we can’t decide whether web-connected devices should be very visible (bigger phones screens!) or hidden away (like, say, in a watch), whether technology should be kept to certain times of the day (you need a phone break!), or integrated into every aspect of our lives.

young child on a cell phoneHelp, my kid is in love with Siri! The latest example of this worrying pattern is the casual adoption and increasing use of Artificial Intelligence–powered speakers and AI personal assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa. AI-powered speakers can be useful in managing your schedule and playing music, but we should be worried about the direction we’re headed when it comes to the technology’s involvement in parenting—an area where we definitely have not considered the consequences.

Recently, Amazon launched a version of its Echo speaker for kids. In that version, Alexa is much more kid-friendly, and has hundreds of audiobooks to read to your children. The AI assistant also comes with child-specific answers to certain questions, and an explicit-lyrics filter. In other words, it does a nice job of letting you maintain control of the content your children consume. And that’s a good thing.

But it remains clear that we haven’t yet fleshed out the limits of such technology—the roles of parenting Alexa shouldn’t fill. Outsourcing the management of children’s attention is common enough—after all, that’s the role TV has played, and that’s what tablets and phones are for now—but there are fundamentals of parenting that shouldn’t be taught by robots. The most basic components of parenting are guidance, maintenance, and affection—we should be worried about the direction AI-powered speakers are heading in because they threaten to creep in on those areas.

For some time, there was a worry that virtual assistants are teaching kids to be rude by just expecting an answer when they ask a question. That is an issue, but I find Amazon’s solution to this somehow more unsettling: The kids’ version of Alexa asks children to say the “magic word” before answering, stepping in to fill the role of parent in teaching manners.

There’s a case to be made that it’s a good thing that technology can reinforce lessons of manners, but I can’t help but feel that this blurs the line of who is supposed to be doing the teaching—a small encroachment on technology’s part onto a turf where parents need a lot of help. The thing is, though, encroachments only happen in small steps.

For the myriad ways technology has made life easier, we still seem to be bad at predicting the long-term consequences of that convenience. Still we forge ahead, unsteady, towards integrating technology more, not less. If we rely on technology for correcting children’s behaviour and giving them the attention that substitutes for affection, then here’s a serious question: What is left of the “parent” job description?

Consider that Google filed a patent on audio monitoring that could detect if your child is up to “mischief.” Here’s how it would work: It will first listen to identify if there’s a child. Then it will listen for movements and whispers—and you’ll be able to program the smart speaker to give a loud verbal warning. This is just a patent, of course, and Google files hundreds of patents for things that may never come to fruition. But this expresses a clear intent to take the technology into the direction of being more involved in parenting.

The question we inevitably get to is at what point will virtual assistants cross the line from helping parents to doing their job? How will outsourcing key parenting tasks impact the child-parent relationship? I don’t know the answers, but I also don’t think we concern ourselves enough with those questions.

Look, I understand the appeal of smart speakers. Thousands of parents rely on Alexa to take over when they’re drained. After all, it’s easy enough for your child to say, “Hey, Alexa, how do you spell forest?” and let you have a breather after you get home from work. And how is this different than, say, sticking children in front of the TV? The thing is, TV’s ask is fundamentally different—it’s a passive medium. It does not seek to build deeper relationships with your children. Meanwhile, the disembodied robot voice in your living room is trying to get better at mimicking real humans in order to build those relationships with your kids.

I was listening to a recent episode of the BuzzFeed News podcast The News, in which tech editor Mat Honan talks about how his kids use Alexa. There was a moment that made me catch my breath: Honan plays a clip of his child—captured by Alexa’s command recording system—where his daughter simply says, “Alexa, I love you.”

Honan is lucid about this moment, the ease with which his kids use Alexa for everything, and the ways smart speakers are going to shape his children’s lives: “They’re going to grow up in a world where there are microphones, speakers, cameras, screens everywhere… [virtual assistants] are going to be able to understand nuance, and understand desire and preferences. Personal assistants like Alexa are likely going to become these deep agents in their lives who are almost like trusted friends.”

We’re not there yet, but we’re well on our way to your children’s trusted, knowledgeable close friend being an AI assistant who’s always listening and present—certainly more present than you can ever be. The future of parenting is quickly heading into new territory without a broader cultural conversation about whether any of this is a good idea.

Read more:
All that screen time does real-life harm: Here’s how much kids should actually be getting
Age by age guide to smartphones

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