MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
On this week's All Tech Considered - parenting with a digital assistant in your home.
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KELLY: An estimated 19 million households already own smart speakers with digital assistants. Think Amazon Alexa or Google Home. Now, many of those 19 million households include children. Manufacturers have taken note. Kids really like talking to these devices. Amazon is rolling out new features next month designed to make its Alexa even more kid-friendly. And that got NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz wondering, do parents want their children cozying up to digital assistants?
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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Alexa, how many miles to the Andromeda galaxy?
ALEXA: The Andromeda galaxy is 14 quintillion, 931 quadrillion...
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: That heartwarming bedtime moment was brought to you by an Amazon promotional video. Last week, the company, which supports NPR, announced an updated Alexa aimed at kids and parents.
TONI REID: One of the things that we saw after we launched is that families loved using Alexa.
KAMENETZ: That's Toni Reid, vice president of Alexa customer experience at Amazon. The company talked to child development experts and tweaked Alexa's personality to be more, Reid says...
REID: Humble, smart, helpful, sometimes funny.
KAMENETZ: So if a kid asks something like, why is Pluto awesome? Alexa will say...
ALEXA: Pluto is awesome because it wasn't a planet. Then it was. Now it's not. It's considered a dwarf planet by scientists. Just because you're small, though, doesn't mean you're not important.
KAMENETZ: Amazon even included a magic word feature, which many parents asked for. Now when you say please, she will say...
ALEXA: By the way, thanks for asking so nicely.
KAMENETZ: Alongside these updates, Amazon is introducing parental controls for the Echo device. Google Home, its biggest competitor, already has some of these controls. The Echo is also adding a version of Amazon's paid subscription service for kids called FreeTime Unlimited. Amazon seems to be nudging families to feel comfortable around Alexa, to put an Echo in the playroom or even in a kid's bedroom. But is that really the best idea?
PAMELA PAVLISCAK: It's occupying that weird space between a friend - a real friend (laughter), a human a friend - and something else. And I think for kids especially, their conception of that is so fluid.
KAMENETZ: Pamela Pavliscak is a futurist and a professor at Pratt Institute. In her research, she's found kids and teens already often see Alexa and other AI services as a friend of the family. Pavliscak says that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it could go too far.
PAVLISCAK: They might use that as a replacement for other kinds of relationships that might be more meaningful.
KAMENETZ: The controls let parents set time limits, but the other changes add up to a chattier Alexa, one who - let's not forget - records every conversation. Amazon says it won't use that information to recommend products to children not outside the existing library and its subscription service. There are no ads on Alexa and no plans for them, the company says. But in the future, Pavliscak says, who knows?
PAVLISCAK: I mean, if you think about it logically, they're communicating with a big retailer through an app that's been made by hundreds of people on the other end (laughter) to - who have thought about a lot of different things to be sure. And it kind of starts to blow your mind.
KAMENETZ: Justine Cassell at Carnegie Mellon has been building AI interfaces for children for decades. What we really should be looking for, she says, is ways that children can get under the hood of technology and have a chance to be creative even if that means breaking the rules.
JUSTINE CASSELL: I hope this is true even though Amazon may not wish this - that children will learn how to hack Alexa.
KAMENETZ: When I got a chance to ask the new Alexa a question in front of Reid and her colleague Josh Sherman, I had that same childish impulse to test her limits.
Alexa, where do babies come from?
ALEXA: People make people, but how they're made would be a better question for a grown-up.
JOSH SHERMAN: Nice try.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That was a good one.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Nice try.
KAMENETZ: Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.
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