Voice control smart devices, such as Alexa, Siri and Google Home, might hinder children’s social and emotional development, argues an expert in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning in healthcare.
These devices might have long-term effects by impeding children’s critical thinking, capacity for empathy and compassion, and their learning skills, says Dr Anmol Arora, an academic physician at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
While voice control devices may act as “friends” and help to improve children’s reading and communication skills, their advanced AI and “human”-sounding voices have prompted concerns about the potential long-term effects on children’s brains at a crucial stage of development.
There are three broad areas of concern, explains the author in a viewpoint published online in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.
These comprise inappropriate responses, impeding social development, and hindering learning.
He cites some well-publicised examples of inappropriate responses, including a device suggesting that a 10-year old should try touching a live plug with a coin.
“It is difficult to enforce robust parental controls on such devices without severely affecting their functionality,” he says, adding that privacy issues have also risen with regards to the recording of private conversations.
These devices can’t teach children how to behave politely, because there’s no expectation of a “please” or “thank you”, and no need to consider the tone of voice, he points out.
“The lack of ability to engage in non-verbal communication makes use of the devices a poor method of learning social interaction,” he writes.
“While in normal human interactions, a child would usually receive constructive feedback if they were to behave inappropriately, this is beyond the scope of a smart device.”
Preliminary research on the use of voice assistants as social companions for lonely adults is encouraging.
But it’s not at all clear if this also applies to children, Dr Arora notes.
“This is particularly important at a time when children might already have had social development impaired as a result of Covid-19 restrictions and when [they] might have been spending more time isolated with smart devices at home,” he emphasises.
Devices are designed to search for requested information and provide a concise, specific answer, but this may hinder traditional processes by which children learn and absorb information, he suggests.
When children ask adults questions, the adult can request contextual information, explain the limitations of their knowledge and probe the child’s reasoning – a process that these devices can’t replicate, he says.
Searching for information is also an important learning experience, which teaches critical thinking and logical reasoning, he explains.
“The rise of voice devices has provided great benefit to the population.”
Their abilities to provide information rapidly, assist with daily activities, and act as a social companion to lonely adults are both important and useful, Dr Arora acknowledges.
“However, urgent research is required into the long-term consequences for children interacting with such devices,” he insists.
“Interacting with the devices at a crucial stage in social and emotional development might have long-term consequences on empathy, compassion and critical thinking,” he concludes.