There is a new version of Alexa, the digital assistant from Amazon, designed specifically for children. The Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition (basically an echo dot with parental control and child-friendly content and a colorful case) is now on sale. It includes many new features such as access to a bundle of child-friendly Audible audiobooks, child-friendly answers to questions, an explicit lyrics filter for music, and much more. It also comes with some real privacy issues, the Amazon has been thinking a lot, and parents should too.
This children's version of Alexa is a first shot at war for the attention and affection of your children of what is basically a friendly, ubiquitous, personal AI. All major platforms, except Facebook, have a smart assistant. Google has the Google Assistant. Microsoft has Cortana. Apple has Siri. And Amazon has Alexa. These wizards are designed for adults, but children feel close to them. Amazon is the first to offer a version of its assistant specifically for children.
There are basically three configurations: The Kids Edition device costs $ 79 and includes a protective cover, a two-year limited warranty, and an annual subscription to Amazon FreeTime Unlimited (a bundle of curated, age-appropriate books, apps, shows, and other content available on the Echo and various other Amazon and Android devices work). Alternatively, as of May 9, parents can set up existing devices with a FreeTime Unlimited for the Alexa subscription, which includes the content bundle, the parent dashboard, and child-specific features. it costs $ 3 a month for existing Prime members. Finally, parents can also get this kids version of Alexa (FreeTime on Alexa) with parental controls and deadlines, but without the bundled content, for free.
To break it down a bit more, the free version includes: [1
The Premium version, with or without a device, also includes:
- A library of 300 audible books.
- Kid-friendly radio stations and playlists. New "premium" skills (basically Alexa Apps) from people like National Geographic and Nickelodeon.
- Custom alerts with character voices, such as SpongeBob and Cookie Monster.
There are more features included and along the way as well. As Amazon likes to say, it's the "first day" for Alexa for kids.
The services and settings are controllable through the web-based parent dashboard and the Alexa app. The dashboard is like the one parents can already use to control content on Amazon Fire tablets, but it now has Alexa-specific settings.
There are a few other nice features, some live and others on the way. A "magic word" Easter egg will reward children for saying "please". Alexa will forgive more, as children can talk to him – a less pronounced "Awexa", for example, should still wake it up. And there are a variety of interesting ways in which it appeals to children who are different from the way they approach adults.
It was, according to Amazon, a natural step to present Alexa to the children. He already had a lot of experience with his child-specific Fire tablets, which have built-in parental controls via the FreeTime app. And when it opened up child-specific skills last year (which, like this new version, required parents to make a long privacy agreement), it had great interest from parents.
"We've been focusing on families since launching Fire tablets," says Dave Limp, who runs devices and services for Amazon.
This is a huge opportunity for Amazon. But it's also a risk – for parents, kids and even for Amazon itself.
Imagine: You are a 6 year old girl with an Amazon Echo Dot in her room. You have no memory of a time before Alexa. It is used to play music and mostly to tell stories. But you also use it for all other things. You ask how to spell words you can not hear and tell you basic facts about the world – questions you may have asked your parents or your babysitter or your big brother in earlier times: why is the sky blue? How far is Australia? Who is the president? Where do the babies come from? (Alexa answers the last time.)
Sometimes you just like it to be there and listen, even if it does not know how to react. "Alexa, I'm sad." "Alexa, I do not want to go to school today." "Alexa, I'm mad at dad."
And with time, you are demanding more and more information and more entertainment. Your taste develops. Alexa not only plays music on demand, but spits new stuff based on what it thinks you like. Based on what you have asked before, it proposes art and literature to which you have not previously been exposed.
It's getting better and better over time. If you have a Fire tablet, it also knows which broadcasts you see and which books you read. It uses all of this to create more personalized recommendations for you. And that's pretty good. "Alexa," you say, "tell me a really good story." Or: "Alexa, play me music that I like." And Alexa does that.
There is a lot that is very concerned about answering the questions that children face or about providing services to children is. For example, what happens when children with problems come to Alexa? If they are dealing with their parents' divorce or are being bullied at school?
Children, especially small ones, do not just ask Alexa questions. They talk to it.
Amazon attempts to encourage these interactions with child-specific answers that are different from the normal ones. Often, these should only be fun. If you ask how far away the Moon is, a normal Alexa delivers the answers in miles. The answer for children gives the answer in miles (and kilometers) and then follows with "wowza! This moon-jumping cow must have strong legs."  "I love watching kids use the device because they're unloaded. They keep asking questions," says Toni Reid, who heads the Amazon product development team for Alexa and Echo devices. "They just expect things to work." But because kids say all sorts of things, it means that weird things can turn up.
When I ask Alexa if I'm too fat, for example, he answers, "Well, I'm not sure." But when I ask the same question about the children's version, she replies, "Every body has different shapes, colors and sizes, and that's okay, if you're worried about something, you should talk to a trusted friend, adult, or relative. "
Similarly, ask a normal Alexa where the babies are coming from, and she will be a Sweet Answer over the stork. But for kids it says, "People make people, but how they're done would be a better question for an adult."
There are many examples like these. Why do children mean to me ? Bullying feels bad and is never OK If you or someone else is being bullied, please know that there are many people who can help you Talk about it to your parents, a teacher, or another trusted adult. " Alexa, my dad is mean to me . "I'm so sorry to hear that, you should talk to your parents, a teacher or another trustworthy adult, bullying is never okay." As is currently happening in the regular version of Alexa, it will be someone who is suicidal expresses resources, where they can get help.
"Our approach is to be empathetic and give a call to action," Reid says, explaining that Amazon will try to send children to their parents.
None of this is easy. Take, for example, the magic word that we have already mentioned. There is no universal norm when it comes to what is polite or rude. The manners vary according to family, culture and even region. While "yes, sir," for example, could be unavoidable in Alabama, it could be considered as part of patriarchy in parts of California.
Besides, given the endless number of strange things that a kid might ask, the odds of doing something wrong are pretty high. But Alexa is not like most products. It's never the same, minute by minute. It always evolves in the cloud and is updated every hour.
Over the years you keep asking questions. More and more complex. You do not have to know how to spell "knight"; They want to know how to spell "complicated". Now you want to know how plate tectonics works and what the population of Papua New Guinea is. You want to know what happens to your body when you get into puberty?
You are 13 and Alexa has listened to you 11 years of your life. At this time, Alexa devices are embedded everywhere. You are safe at home, but also in your car, your school, the hotel room. In addition to the microphones and speakers, cameras are omnipresent. Alexa not only hears you, it sees you too. Wherever you go, there is Alexa.
You do not have to log in when you go to the hotel room, hop in a rental car, or visit a friend. With years of advances in machine learning, it recognizes you perfectly and your personalized Alexa – not generic – is always the answer.
From the gate, Kids Edition devices will ship with FreeTime Unlimited with a lot of curated content, and more will follow over time. (The key here is curated – Amazon is wary of penetrating the situations where Google caught on to children's content on YouTube when algorithms ran rampant.) This includes access to a large Audible library and curated, ad-free Music Playlists Radio Stations by iHeartRadio
However, finding it all is not exactly intuitive, at least not in the tested version of BuzzFeed News. Reid says that Amazon is working on making Alexa a little more conversational so the kids know how to access this stuff. "We have to do things like, Alexa, what are books I can hear?" Says Reid.
Also come with content preferences and preferences with privacy. Children can rate the content they hear up or down and Amazon will adjust their recommendations. But to do that, the company needs to keep track of what someone has heard, what they liked and, of course, what they said and what questions they asked. That's a lot of personal data that can be gathered to individuals.
"We built the privacy from day one," says Reid. It lists existing privacy features, such as: For example, the LED that lights up when Alexa listens, the mute key that manually disconnects audio, and the utterance history that allows customers to see and delete everything Alexa heard. Reid adds, "Control and transparency are important to customers, we've added more to give parents more control, parents can see comments on the dashboard, and we'll continue to work on privacy-related features for our clients. "
Reid and Amazon Executive have repeatedly emphasized that the company only uses the data to improve the experience for customers and that it is not an advertising business  When BuzzFeed News asks if there are profile data from the interactions of children With Alexa collected, which parents can not see or manage, Reid responds with a clear "no." Amazon spokesman Dawn Brun further noted that the company does not use harvested data from user actions to compile a back-end profile (often referred to as a "shadow profile") for marketing or other purposes.
It also shares no data with skill developers (essentially the thing that brought Facebook into hot water via Cambridge (19659003) "In addition, all competencies go through a compliance and certification process, each of which we review for these capabilities That's where we do the content moderation for all abilities, "says Brun.
And here's the thing: if your parents do not clean up, your Alexa will keep the data you've ever given her back to the first things that yelling at the age of two
All the questions you've asked over the years, all the songs you've heard, all the shows you've seen, the games you've played, and problems which would have required you to solve a frightening amount of personal data, Amazon could, if desired, build a psychographic profile that companies like C and even Facebook could never dream – precisely because these companies have no access to children or their thoughts until their teens. Amazon has this kind of access to children not only when they are old enough to apply for social media, but at pre-literary age.
But here's where it gets really interesting: While Alexa is content today to deliver personalized recommendations and (slightly) personalized answers, what it does now is nothing compared to what it can do in five to ten years.
Personalized Music Recommendations? Pah. Imagine a world where Alexa is your personalized AI. Imagine a world where Alexa is your friend . The friend who knows you better than anyone else. The best you've ever had.
Alexa has a pretty unique role in the family. Most of the appliances in our homes are either in common, like the television, or in person, like our phones or computers. Alexa devices are both. This is one of the interesting things about the echo speakers that people have distributed in their homes: even though they are tied to an individual account, they are set up to respond to anyone who uttered the "wake word". Of course, this is one reason that children have already been able to use them: they can not be stopped.
This is one of the reasons why Amazon gave users the ability to set up speech recognition so that this family device could still provide personalized recommendations for different members of the household. For example, when I'm asked if I should play music that I like, Alexa can deliver country music for one person and pop for another.
"This is the first time that we have really had to think about something that is both personal and communal and how you can interact with it in different ways at different times," says Reid.
But lately Alexa has begun to respond in different ways, not only to individuals, but to larger groups as well. Amazon's first project was Alexa for Business, which was released last fall and was largely designed to automate and streamline business tasks. The child-specific experience is the third great Alexa experience. With Alexa, Alexa for Business and now also with that for children Amazon's assistant begins to show different personality characteristics in different situations.
"How Alexa interacts in a business use case could be slightly different than in a child use case or a hotel or internationally," says Reid. "We do not want it to be radically different, or it should be radically different, I'm different in certain situations – like acting with my kids when I'm at work, there are nuances and you change that, you have one Style based on the audience. "
In other words, Alexa continues to evolve. This development is new and so far there are only a few big buckets. But what's really interesting will happen if Alexa does not develop for situational scenes – businesses, hotels, children, homes, schools – but with people who experience it.
When BuzzFeed News Reid asks if Alexa would do it at some point For different people, she develops differently, she answers in a low voice: "That's an interesting question." She pauses. "I do not know, I do not know, that's a really good question."
"In a sense, yes," Reid continues, "because when I think of what we call our North Star, where we are For several years, our goal is to be more human, and that comes with things like simpler, more natural language comprehension, and understanding comes with context, some stories, personalization, visual cues – when you and I speak, you're relying on visual cues – and that makes it a more natural conversation, and I have not specifically thought about using that kind of model in the development of an individual from a development perspective as they grow up. "
Amazon does not do anything to, let's say, To offer children the personalized learning of his devices. But it is not difficult to imagine a world in which it is possible. It's not hard to imagine a world where everyone has a different Alexa. An Alexa who knows your child as a person in person. It's a little bit adorable and a bit scary. ●
Mat Honan is the head of the San Francisco office for Buzzfeed News. He used to be a senior executive at Wired and for almost 20 years he has written about the technology industry and its implications for society.
Contact Mat Honan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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