I was in the car this morning with a seven year-old when a text announced the prospect of a play date. “Give me the phone,” the child asked, and she proceeded to use the Voice feature to answer the text using language she understood but was still beyond her capacity to spell out and write. Children are now growing up with technology, a lot of them with Alexa, Echo and other robotics aides. Researchers at the Personal Robots Group at MIT Media Lab are now looking at the consequences of their growing up relying on digital assistants. There’s of course the privacy issue—that the more one uses them, the more one needs to be connected and the more our privacy is compromised. But leaving aside the privacy issue, can these manifestations of AI help or hurt this new generation? They play games and interact with it in all sorts of ways including how to control the use of the technology around their homes. It looks like it may be creating a form of social skills. For example, with Alexa, there is a need to preface a request with Alexa, something not needed with a parent or other non-robotic person. Also if a parent interacts with Alexa, the child has to learn to be silent while it answers, something he or she is not likely to do when the parent addresses an adult. That’s why some researchers posit children are developing skills of communication when they use these devices. But critics wonder if those digital butlers are interfering with the child ability to think or to do things for themselves. All they have to do is ask for what they want. And all the while the robots are becoming more sophisticated and children can ask for more things.
Digital assistants it’s safe to say are here to say. Using them will increase and our reliance on this type of AI will deepen. But since as all of technology AI comes with consequences, now is indeed the time to assess and address them.