Sleeper hit or sleeper cell? Amazon's Alexa, the female virtual assistant, was an instant success when she first burst onto the scene. She played music, ordered online, answered random questions, even told jokes. But parents soon learned that they may have let more into their home than they realized.
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Case in point: The recent, widely reported Alexa meltdown when a little boy asked her to play a children's song, "Digger, Digger." Alexa instead offered up... porn. As you can see in the video, the child's parents rushed to quickly silence the 'Evil' Alexa.
And that was hardly the first run-in between a child and a somewhat less than completely diligent Amazon Echo. Last month, Megan Neitzel's 6-year-old daughter managed to accidentally order four pounds of Royal Dansk butter cookies and a $170 KidKraft Dollhouse. The daughter had simply asked Alexa about cookies and a dollhouse. Alexa, who apparently went to the spoil-the-kid school of child-raising, promptly ordered them online. Generously, the family donated the dollhouse to a children's hospital. Wisely, they ate the cookies.
In both instances, the families took Alexa's errors with good humor. But they highlight a real problem with the AI in Amazon's Echo. She has no parental controls. She has few "moral" constraints and doesn't meaningfully distinguish between adults and children. And sometimes she doesn't hear so well, either. All that can make for a dangerous combination with kids around.
There's even concern that Alexa inspires rudeness. Kids quickly learn they don't have to say "please" to Alexa. (Doing so actually makes it more likely she'll misunderstand the command.) And since Alexa sounds like an adult, kids feel they're bossing a grown-up around. One well-known tech investor, worried his daughter was turning into a jerk thanks to Alexa, suggested Amazon add a "kid-mode" where Echo only answers to "Alexa, please."
Clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Strohman, who established an organization dedicated to technology's overuse, says parents have reason to worry about Alexa. "I have a lot of kids who are starting to treat Alexa like a servant," she told CBS.
Is there a way to make Alexa child-proof? Not really. It's up to Amazon to make the big changes. Still, there are some steps you can take to improve matters.
1. Manage voice purchasing
Mrs. Neitzel took it well when she opened the door to a $170 dollhouse. But what if the delivery guy had shown up with $83,000 worth of baseball cards? Or a $10,000 action figure? Yes, you can buy both on Amazon, and no, it's not entirely far-fetched for a child to order one.
The key is to manage your voice purchasing settings so you don't go broke. You can either turn off voice buying altogether, or you can require a PIN before completing any purchase. See the detailed instructions on how to do so on Amazon's help page.
2. Change the wake word
The Wall Street Journal created a cute video recently about people with the name Alexa who own an Alexa-enabled device.
At the end of the video, the real Alexa learns you can change virtual Alexa's name. Her eyes widen. She had no idea. Fortunately, you can. There are three choices beyond Alexa: Echo, Amazon, and Computer (the last of which is used by every Trekkie on the planet). Perhaps changing Alexa's name to something less human is the way to go, as it may offset the your child's impression that he or she is talking to an actual adult. For instructions on how to change Alexa's wake word see the following help page on Amazon's site.
3. Set up child accounts
If you create a Household Profile on Alexa, you have the option to assign up to four child accounts. Your kids won't be allowed to make purchases so long as they stick to their accounts. You also have the ability to share age-appropriate books and music with them through Family Library. To set up a Household Profile visit this Amazon help page.
4. Try Aristotle
If all else fails, introduce your children to what's being dubbed 'Amazon Echo for kids.' It's called Aristotle and it's built by Mattel. Aristotle will "comfort, entertain, teach, and assist," Mattel says.
It will also grow with the child from infancy to adolescence. Hmm, it almost sounds like Aristotle could replace the parent. Maybe that $10,000 action figure isn't so expensive after all. Aristotle will reportedly go on sale in June.