Artificial intelligence is barely in the hands of the general public, and it already has a bad rep with parents. In the days of ole, kids used to crack us up when they’d say the “darndest things,” but now we are horrified when they ask Alexa (the AI inside the Amazon Echo) the darndest questions – and get a response that is not appropriate for children.
Sometimes these questions are innocent enough, and the kid just didn’t realize what it was asking. Other times, Alexa misunderstands the questions and returns an inappropriate answer (like that one time she started listing off porn).
What should Alexa say about Santa Claus? How about how babies are made? What’s the right answer to give about what happens when someone dies? What should Alexa say when a kid asks about a controversial topic that they heard on the news, such as marijuana or the #MeToo movement or, well, anything about President Trump?
Amazon has responded to the backlash about Alexa’s inappropriateness by offering some child-proofing options; but where does the censorship line get crossed? Who decides what is and is not appropriate for someone else’s child? In a nutshell, this is a gray area for sure, and one with no obviously right or wrong answer.
Amazon offers the ability to enable FreeTime, which allows parents some control over how their kids use Alexa. In general, parents are able to control their child(ren)’s exposure by blocking the services and skills they find inappropriate, and setting blocks on explicit songs. Once activated, FreeTime also changes how Alexa answers questions about topics deemed inappropriate by prompting the asker to seek out a grown up to help explain the answer.
Amazon also offers a filter for explicit material; in case you don’t want to go full FreeTime mode. The explicit filter won’t be as comprehensive as FreeTime, but it will block songs with explicit and mature content from being played. The filter can be turned on and off with a voice command, or it can be managed inside the Alexa app.
Amazon also released a Kid’s Edition of the Echo Dot and other devices that are able to use Alexa. This version assumed censoring is wanted, so that is activated by default.
Right now, these are the options that parents have for controlling what their family is able to access through Alexa. You might not be a parent that wants to filter out everything that comes along with Alexa’s filters, but there isn’t much of choice now. For example, you may have told your child that Santa doesn’t exist, but by default Alexa, in FreeTime mode, will not answer a question about who Santa is.
As a parent, one thing to remember is that your home may use Alexa filtering, but the homes of your children’s friends may not opt for that. It’s a whole new generation, and it’s one where we apparently need to ask other parents if their smart home tech has been set up to protect children or not.
Good luck out there, it’s a wild world of AI.