What’s the best way to keep adults from questioning the use of a deeply problematic product? Get them started when they’re too young to question anything. Amazon has a new addition to its line of voice-commanded artificial intelligence Alexa assistants, marketed for use by children as young as 5 years old, who can barely grasp a box of juice, let alone digital privacy. Now, a coalition of children’s privacy and psychology advocates are warning parents away from Amazon’s latest, cutest device, saying it could normalize surveillance and harm children’s mental development.
The Echo Dot for kids is functionally identical to the Echo Dot for adults, except that it’s brightly colored and inexplicably costs $30 more than the grown-up version. Cosmetics aside, Echo Dot is still an AI-powered microphone that listens constantly for an activation keyword, relays a user’s voice to remote servers where it is analyzed and processed opaquely, and then responds to an increasingly long list of commands; on its packaging, Amazon highlights commands like “tell me a story” and “start SpongeBob.” Dot for kids will not only perpetually listen to and entertain your children, but attempt to teach them manners in your stead: “Alexa even provides positive feedback when kids ask questions and remember to say ‘please,'” says Amazon.
But a group of experts says Amazon’s little Play-Doh-colored pucks have no place near children. A statement released today by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, or CCFC, which previously led a prominent campaign against a version of Facebook Messenger aimed at kids, claims that Dot for kids and its ability to streamline a kid’s interaction with brands “pose significant threats to children’s wellbeing and privacy.” The CCFC statement is joined by critical letters from Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Joe Barton. According to the CCFC’s Executive Director Josh Golin, “Amazon wants kids to be dependent on its data-gathering device from the moment they wake up until they go to bed at night. … AI devices raise a host of privacy concerns and interfere with the face-to-face interactions and self-driven play that children need to thrive.” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which co-signed the statement, added his concerns:
Commercially-produced voice-recognition technologies, such as Amazon Echo, are primarily designed to promote products and brands. Amazon is acting irresponsibly by urging parents to unleash an AI-driven Alexa product into their children’s lives, without first ensuring that it will not harm their cognitive and emotional development. Echo Dot Kids is designed to encourage children to give up their personal information so it can drive even more revenues for the E-Commerce colossus.
In particular, Amazon’s relatively cheap devices, including Kindle and Echo, are more or less openly a play at getting consumers locked into the Amazon Prime ecosystem of services, serving as a firehose of Amazon-licensed content and, of course, an easy way to buy goods from the megastore.
Amazon provided counter-statements to both the CCFC statement and the congressional letter, stating that the company “will be working directly with the Senator’s office to address each question, and that “Amazon takes privacy and security seriously.” Amazon also touted the “communal nature” of Dot for Kids:
Technology– in general – isn’t a replacement for parenting or social connection. One of the great things about Alexa and Echo is the communal nature of the device – parents and kids can join in the learning and fun together. We believe one of the core benefits of FreeTime and FreeTime Unlimited is that the services provide parents the tools they need to help manage the interactions between their child and Alexa as they see fit. For example, parents can review and listen to all their children’s voice recordings in the Alexa app, they can also review FreeTime Unlimited activity via the Parent Dashboard, and set bedtime limits or pause the device whenever they’d like.
“It may serve as a substitute for real friendships with other children and pose new temptations to parents to monitor their children in ways that aren’t good.”
The CCFC statement includes critical statements from a variety of experts in a variety of fields, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle, developmental pediatrician Jenny Radesky, and Kade Crockford of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who stressed that “children cannot consent to the type of surveillance a device like this will perform on them. They are too young to understand what it means to provide Amazon and potentially numerous other entities with their sensitive information, or to understand what it means to interact with artificial intelligence.”
George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University and director of its Center for Behavioral Decision Research, who is not affiliated with the anti-Echo campaign, told The Intercept that he’s worried about the effects the device could have on not just children, but the parents who buy Dot for kids:
For the children, if Alexa is very interactive, it may serve as a substitute for real friendships with other children, which are so important for socialization. And Alexa is never going to argue with a child, or want to play a different game, so it risks raising a generation of poorly socialized, bossy, children used to ordering their playmates around. And, Alexa will just instantly answer any question they have, so they won’t ever incubate their curiosity or learn how to navigate the world to obtain answers to their questions. For adults, it will be a temptation to not arrange playdates or spend time reading to their children or listening to music with them. Why read a book to a child when Alexa can do it for you? It may also pose new temptations to parents to monitor their children in ways that aren’t good for parent or child.
As a bonus, Dot for kids advertises its ability to function as a sort of intercom between parents and children, offering the chance to cut down on face time: “You can use compatible Echo devices or the Alexa app to let kids know dinner is ready, ask for help with a chore, or remind them to go to sleep—all without raising your voice.”
It’s easy for those with a brain more developed than a 5-year-old’s to feel disturbed — or at least creeped out — by the thought of an always-on microphone in your home. But the fact that these devices sell so well for Amazon (as well as Google and Apple, which continue to develop new listening device assistants at a rapid pace) shows how easy it is for consumers to adjust to a new normal, in which audio access to the home by a technology firm is worth a litany of small conveniences. But presumably, adult users who can remember a time when none of this existed will be able to continue to adjust their tolerance for increased home surveillance as it grows in sophistication. For a child literally raised in part by a robot voice, what could be the big deal? It’s just the friendly box that taught me to say please and played SpongeBob on demand, after all.
Update: May 11, 2018, 4:11 p.m.
This story has been updated with statements from Amazon. The company also noted that the $30 price premium on Dot for Kids is “because the Echo Dot Kids Edition comes with one year of the FreeTime Unlimited family plan ($6.99 per month regularly), premium Alexa skills and over 300 Audible kids titles included, a case, and a 2 year worry free guarantee.”