What’s the best way to keep adults from questioning the use of a deeply problematic product? Get them started when they’re too young to question anything. Amazon has a new addition to its line of voice-commanded AI “Alexa” assistants, marketed for use by children as young as 5, who can barely grasp a box of juice, let alone digital privacy. Now a coalition of children’s privacy and psychology advocates are warning parents away from Amazon’s latest, cutest device, saying it could normalize surveillance and harm children’s mental development.
The Echo Dot for Kids is functionally identical to the Echo Dot for adults, except brightly colored and inexplicably $30 more than the grownup version. Cosmetics aside, Echo Dot is still an artificial intelligence-powered microphone that listens constantly for an activation keyword, relays a user’s voice to remote servers where it is analyzed and processed opaquely, and then responds to an increasingly long list of commands; on its packaging, Amazon highlights commands like “tell me a story” and “start Spongebob.” Dot for Kids will not only perpetually listen to and entertain your children, but attempt to teach them manners in your stead: “Alexa even provides positive feedback when kids ask questions and remember to say ‘please,’” says Amazon.
But a group of experts says Amazon’s little Playdough-colored pucks have no place near children. A statement released today by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, which previously led a prominent campaign against a version of Facebook Messenger aimed at kids, claims that Dot for Kids and its ability to streamline a kid’s interaction with brands “pose significant threats to children’s wellbeing and privacy.” According to the CCFC’s executive director Josh Golin, “Amazon wants kids to be dependent on its data-gathering device from the moment they wake up until they go to bed at night…AI devices raise a host of privacy concerns and interfere with the face-to-face interactions and self-driven play that children need to thrive.” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (which cosigned the statement), added his concerns:
“Commercially-produced voice-recognition technologies, such as Amazon Echo, are primarily designed to promote products and brands. Amazon is acting irresponsibly by urging parents to unleash an AI-driven Alexa product into their children’s lives, without first ensuring that it will not harm their cognitive and emotional development. Echo Dot Kids is designed to encourage children to give up their personal information so it can drive even