In 2021, nearly 95 million people in the US are estimated to own at least one smart speaker, up from 76 million in 2020, according to data from Edison Research. On top of this, 85% of people in the US own a smartphone, many of which come standard with virtual assistants like Siri or Google Assistant.
It should come as no surprise that our home-based AI are receiving as much interaction from our kids as they do from adults. But what kind of effect does growing up with these never-ending robotic sources of information-on-demand have on the cognitive development of our children? At Teague, we're exploring the positive and potentially negative effects, and have unearthed how we can mitigate the latter through design.
First, the good.
AI helps satisfy never-ending curiosity.
With a dead-simple Q&A-based screenless interface, virtual assistants make learning easier and faster for children who are constantly asking questions. While parents may eventually grow fatigued with their inherent curiosity of never being satisfied with an answer, virtual assistants never tire of answering the “whys” of children, fueling their curiosity.
“In this way, these devices are great for kids,” says Solace Shen, a Cornell University psychologist who studies how children interact with robots to NPR. “Kids are so curious, and they can learn a lot of facts and information from the devices, without parents having to bring out their phones or computers.”
Rapid acquisition of new vocabulary.
Mama. Dada. Hey Google? The landscape of first words that kids are saying today is shifting, thanks to virtual assistants. The two-year-old girl featured in this article, for instance, started talking to Alexa and Google when she was just six months old, with both names being among the first 50 words in her lexicon.
While this may seem simultaneously adorable and shocking, it’s only becoming more commonplace. And it has some benefits: In learning commands like “Alexa, lights off” or “Ok Google, jingle bells”, children are learning how to communicate more clearly and are expanding their vocabulary rapidly and at an earlier age than generations before.
Developing more patience.
In a world where smart speakers tend to have a bias in who they can understand, children are at a huge disadvantage. In a recent client project working with children and VUI-based AI, the design team at Teague observed a lackluster 2/3 success rate of the assistant interpreting input from children; whereas adults commonly experienced a success rate above 90%.
There’s a potential silver lining to this, however: in a study done quite by accident, University of Washington researchers investigated what happens when children are unable to get their point across to virtual assistants. Kids, who inherently learn by mimicking or through repetition, were found to have exceedingly more patience than their guardians, many of whom gave up trying to recover communication with the device after a few tries.
Less screen time.
Long term, could growing up with virtual assistants as a natural part of everyday life cut down on screen time for today’s kids? As adults, we pull out our phones constantly to check the news, weather, social media, email, and so much more. Our excessive screen time has become a scientifically-defined addiction, one many of us can’t break. But if younger generations default to using Google Assistant and Alexa for these actions, a habit ingrained in them from the time they were toddlers, could it inevitably cut down on daily screen time?
Recently, Teague worked with a partner to explore what gameplay might look like with an audio virtual assistant. While observing their children’s please-can-we-do-another reactions to engaging with our prototype, parents became increasingly excited at the possibility of the platform as a more nutritional alternative to "screen time".