Smart Speakers: Smart Choice?
Weighing the pros and cons of welcoming Alexa or Google Assistant into your home
The 1960s sci-fi TV series “Star Trek” introduced an array of futuristic gadgets, like a flip phone communicator, Uhura’s Bluetooth-esque earpiece and voice interface computers. Today we’ve adopted technology that was once the science fiction of the past — and we have even invited it into our own homes.
In the Clouds
Amazon introduced Alexa as part of its Amazon Echo line of smart speakers in 2014. Google Assistant, which was released in 2016 as part of the Google Home series, is another cloud-based service that can be accessed via smartphone or speakers, and features products ranging from the Google Home Mini to the Google Home Max. Apple’s HomePod speaker, released in 2017, allows users to tap into Siri’s vast knowledge without having to use an iPhone.
Users can interact with these virtual assistants by using their voice to request that they play music, check the weather and answer general questions. These products can also talk to other smart home devices to turn on the lights, change a home’s temperature and more. Interactions begin with an activation “wake word.” For Alexa, users might say:
“Alexa, what’s 5 times 2?”
“Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes.”
“Alexa, play ‘Baby Shark’!”
Brian Gribbin of Saxapahaw, a father of two kids ages 10 and 12, says playing music is the most popular way his family uses Alexa.
“We pay the $1.99 a month and it gives you access to a never-ending ocean of music,” he says. “The kids love it, and we all like a different genre.”
He says using Alexa to play music brings the family together and makes chores more fun. “We have danced together in the kitchen while I rinse dishes and the kids fill the dishwasher,” he says.
Families can also use cloud-based devices to make calls or send messages to approved contacts (although users can’t receive calls or messages using these devices). Smart speakers can replace screen time, too, since kids can use them to listen to music or a family podcast without resorting to opening a laptop or checking a smartphone.
“[Alexa] does make looking things up a bit easier,” Gribbin says, adding that his children have used Alexa to get help with homework from time to time. “It’s funny — I used to use encyclopedias. The next generation had Google. Now my kids just ask Alexa.”
Alexa is a virtual personality. She can provide basic homework help or crack a pre-programmed joke, but she can’t carry on a conversation the same way a human can. Thanks to the development of such intelligent software for homes, many parents are asking: “How should our children interact with virtual personalities?”
A 2019 study published by the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggests that children view robotic entities as occupying a middle, moral ground between living and inanimate entities — affording robots less concern than people or animals, but more concern than a stuffed toy or a box. Since smart speakers are relatively new devices, there has been little research thus far about how they directly affect children’s development.
However, researcher Pamela Pavliscak, a futurist who studies emotional relationships with technology, has discovered that kids and teens often look at Alexa as a “friend of the family,” according to an April 30, 2018, NPR article titled, “Kids, Meet Alexa, Your AI [Artificial Intelligence] Mary Poppins.” The Atlantic refers to Alexa as a digital genie in an April 23, 2018, article titled, “Alexa and the Age of Casual Rudeness.”
When all a kid has to say is, “Alexa, set volume to 5,” or “Alexa, play ‘20 Questions,’” your wish is her command. This effortless method of retrieving information makes it easier for kids to withhold manners. What’s a parent to do? Ask your kids to say “please” and “thank you” to Alexa or Google Assistant. You can also consider purchasing the Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition, which encourages good manners through positive reinforcement.
“You’ll always know when Alexa is recording and sending your request to Amazon’s secure cloud because a blue light indicator will appear or an audio tone will sound on your Echo device,” the policy states. “You can view, hear and delete your voice recordings at Alexa Privacy Settings or in the Alexa app at any time. To delete by voice, you can also say, ‘Alexa, delete what I just said,’ or ‘Alexa, delete everything I said today.’”
Amazon’s FAQ states that Echo devices only store audio when the wake word is detected. Recordings are sent to Amazon’s cloud, where the request is processed and answered. Google Home devices function similarly, storing customizations such as names and interests. Both devices can be muted, and both services provide apps that allow you to view your data and delete your history at any time. Devices sometimes send recordings to their respective companies to improve their services, but users can opt out of sharing data.
Parents can use the services’ apps to
monitor and control children’s interactions. Kid-friendly features include filtering explicit music, setting bedtime and daily time limits, and establishing purchasing limits.
Overall, smart speakers can be used for a variety of purposes. Parental controls and privacy settings can help you tailor your family’s experience with these popular devices so everyone can enjoy using them.
Carolyn Caggia is a communicator and graphic designer in Cary.