Our Concerns About Smart Tech might reflect our Lack of Trust in Humanity

on October 11, 2017
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Back in January, toy maker Mattel announced Aristotle, a smart hub aimed at children. Aristotle was designed to grow with your kids, starting out with helping soothe a crying baby with lights and music to get to help them with homework once in school.

Last week, Mattel canceled the product saying it did not “ fully align with Mattel’s new technology strategy.” Despite the company statement, it seems that strong concerns around data privacy and child development led to the product cancellation.

While a product directly marketed at kids might raise more concerns, there are plenty of products that are hitting the smart home market that will be used by children and should be no less of a concern.

Focus on Kids is growing in the Quest to win Our Homes

Over the past few weeks, both Amazon and Google refined their Amazon Echo and Google Home’s Kids offering by adding specific apps and features. Amazon released a series of apps that will be labelled as children’s apps from Spongebob Challenge to Storytime. In a similar vein, Google announced some new kid-friendly features bringing story time and gaming together with Disney’s names like Lightning McQueen and Star Wars. Google is also working with Warner Brothers and Sports Illustrated Kids to add content regularly. The new kids vertical will soon be open to developers and these features will be arriving on Google Home later in October. Parents will also be able to have family-linked account settings on Google Home so that different permissions can be set through the Family Link service. Last, a new feature for families called “Broadcast” allows you to push voice messages and reminders across all of your Google Home devices. Although I doubt Broadcast will make my kid pay more attention than when I shout “time for school” at the top of my voice! Google also improved Google Home’s ability to understand kids younger than 13.

All of these features are collecting data at some level or another which might expose brands to risks, risks Mattel did not think were worth running. Doing things by the book, Amazon is requesting parents to give permission as requested by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act but only time will tell if it is enough. This is, after all, uncharted territory.

For technology shared in the home, things get complicated quite quickly. There are different areas we should consider: content access and data privacy. While there is a lot of attention on the latter, I am not sure we have started to think about the former as much as we should. These devices are full-fledge computers disguised as remote controls which might lead most users to underestimate the power they have. With computers, and to a lesser extent, with phones, we set up restrictions for what our kids can do. With TVs, however, we mostly tend to rely on a mix of program guidance and common sense in order to regulate the type of content our kids are exposed to. These new  smart devices are nowhere near self regulation. Once technology is capable to recognize voices we might be able to grant certain permissions so that our children will not be played the wrong version of a song, or read an R rated definition of a word. Nothing is perfect though. Consider your TV experience, you might be ok with the movie you allow your children to watch despite the PG13 rating, but the commercials are often not appropriate. When it comes to these smart speakers, everything from contacts to search is wide open to users. Google started supporting two voices under its Voice Match technology so that when I access calendar appointments or contacts it makes sure they are mine and not my husband’s. As the number of voices supported grows you can see how families could use the technology not to just prevent kids from calling people and messing with your calendar but also to avoid access to certain content.

Technology is not Evil but Humans can be

Protecting privacy, especially of the vulnerable, is a very important topic. Yet, what I find even more fascinating are the concerns some expressed about the impact that Aristotle could have had on children’s development. The worry was that kids could learn to turn to technology for comfort rather than their parents or care takers. But how can that happen if we, as parents and caretakers, continue to do our job?

Technology impacts behavior. Nobody could successfully dispute this statement.
We already know Gen Z is growing up more slowly than previous generations. Like Jean M. Twenge says in the book iGen “ today’s kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy and completely unprepared for adulthood”. While technology is the enabler, it is humans who empower it. This addiction to screens starts very early out of convenience. I often tell the story that our daughter’s first words were dada, “ipone” and mama. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I came after the magical device Steve Jobs brought to market! How did that happen? Cause we discovered it was the most effective tool to keep our wiggly baby still during nappy changes. Convenience drives a lot of what we do. Before phones it was TV of course. Parents discovered that it was much easier to put kids in front of a screen to be entertained than to actually engage with them. Yet, I am sure that even the busiest of parents would not just let a smart hub soothe their crying baby.

Why are we so concerned about the impact on child development? How is this new tech any different from the effect that pacifiers could have had? While we might not see a pacifier as tech, it is a device, a device that was invented to substitute a mother’s breast to soothe. Have mothers stopped breastfeeding or caring for their babies because of it? Certainly not!

Smart tech is helping with preventing crib and hot car deaths but as far as I know there is no tech that can either supplement or substitute common sense. It seems to me that the concerns people have are more rooted in a lack of trust in us humans and how we will use the technology rather than in a lack of trust in what the technology can deliver. Interestingly, what will help is not better tech skills but better social skills, greater empathy, higher emotional IQ. So, as we balance the impact of tech on child development on one side and a greater focus on STEM on the other, let’s not forget to empower our kids with emotional and social skills that will help them be tech wizards with a heart.