Hey Alexa, I wonder what voice control does to growing brains?
The Sector > Research > Hey Alexa, I wonder what voice control does to growing brains?

Hey Alexa, I wonder what voice control does to growing brains?

by Freya Lucas

September 29, 2022

Voice control smart devices which respond to commands like “Hey Siri” or “Alexa…” may be hindering children’s social and emotional development by impeding critical thinking, empathy, and compassion, an expert from the University of Cambridge has revealed.


Dr Anmol Arora has extensively researched the impact of the devices as part of his work which explores the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in healthcare. His perspectives have been shared in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.


While for some children voice control devices may appear to be ‘friends’ and support them with verbal communication skills, the fact that the devices use advanced AI and human sounding voices has prompted concerns about the potential long term effects on children’s brains at crucial developmental stages. 


The three main concerns, Dr Arora believes, relate to inappropriate responses, the impediment of children’s social development and the hindrance of learning. 


“It is difficult to enforce robust parental controls on such devices without severely affecting their functionality,” he suggested, adding that privacy issues have also arisen in respect of the recording of private conversations.


The 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,” Dr Arora said. “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 is “not at all clear” if this same value applies to children, he continued.


“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.” 


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, Dr Arora said.


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. 


Searching for information is also an important learning experience, which teaches critical thinking and logical reasoning.


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, the author 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.” 


To access the perspectives of Dr Arora please see here

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