Family Life with Virtual Assistants: A Review of Echo Dot Kids Edition

Product: Echo Dot Kids Edition is the child-friendly version of the hockey puck-sized smart speaker from Amazon. Kids can hear Alexa tell silly jokes, play child-friendly music, and read children’s books from Amazon’s extensive Audible library. It comes in durable red, green, and blue cases.

Glows: Purchase of Echo Dot Kids Edition includes one year of the Amazon FreeTime Unlimited plan (renewal prices vary based on whether you have a Prime membership). FreeTime includes a library of curated child-appropriate streaming music content and audio books, plus a parent dashboard. Children cannot make purchases from Amazon on the Kids Edition. Unlike the standard Echo Dot’s one-year warranty, this one includes a two-year warranty.

Retail priced at $79.99, the Kids Edition is about $30 more than the standard version. The value here is that this version is bundled with tons of kid-friendly content; however, a monthly fee kicks in after one year: If you are an Amazon Prime member, FreeTime for each child will set you back $3 monthly; $5 per child if you are not a Prime member.

Bottom Line: The Kids Edition’s value is the inclusion of FreeTime, as well as access to the Amazon Parent Dashboard. There, parents can monitor and control their child’s usage of the Dot, including turning it off during nighttime or when homework is being completed. Parental controls extend to any device that uses Amazon as a platform, including Fire and Kindle tablets, as well as Android and Apple tablet or smartphone using Amazon apps such Audible or Amazon Music (on smart video-enabled devices, FreeTime uses Common Sense Media to curate websites and even YouTube video content). Of course, parents should not over-rely on using devices as digital babysitters, and curated dashboards are never foolproof at filtering inappropriate content. Children’s data privacy is listed on Amazon, but for more, read what Consumer Reports says.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Growing Up with Virtual Assistants

Our son—age 7—is growing up surrounded by virtual assistants like Alexa. Having lived with “her” for 2 years, he is also well acquainted with Apple’s Siri and the Google Assistant. As a family, we play party games with Alexa, like Twenty Questions, one of its many free “Skills” (Web-enabled applications). Uncannily, it can filter through enough yes and no questions (“Does it fly?” “Can I eat it?”) to deduce what we are all thinking!

Twenty Questions is just one of many fun Skills available in the Amazon Alexa Store. Other kid-friendly interactives include The Magic Door, a choose-your-own-adventure bedtime story. Alexa can also stream music, and even control other smart devices and appliances (sometimes known as the Internet of Things, or IoT). For example, Philips has an IoT light system called Hue where your voice can dim the lights. (Hue also works with Apple’s HomeKit, Microsoft’s Cortana, and the Google Assistant). It’s all quite strange and wonderful.

A Teachable Moment on Virtual Assistants

Professor Sherry Turkle warned about “sociable robots” in her TED Talk, Connected, but Alone?, and in her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. She stated that artificial intelligence devices that are “designed to be companions—to the elderly, to our children, to us” may mimic human behavior, but are still a poor substitute for genuine human interaction.

Anecdotally, our son doesn’t project affection to Alexa or Siri like he does his stuffed Mickey Mouse, or even our family dog. Instead, he treats the device as a source for on-demand content. “How do you spell spaghetti”? he may ask. “Alexa, please spell spaghetti” is then the household answer. (Yes, Kids Edition encourages politeness!)

So, when I read articles in Wired about what Alexa may do to my child’s brain, I try not to spiral into moral hysterics. Nor do I worry much when I read Elon Musk’s views on the dangers of artificial intelligence. I do engage in conversation with our child about why Amazon—an online retailer—sells Echo Dots to kids. I also consider and discuss with our son why so many virtual assistants (and GPS systems) have female voices as the default. The Atlantic has a thought-provoking article to read before discussing with your child or children.

Making Virtual Assistants 

Wired recently suggested that instead of teaching coding to children, we should teach them to “train computers like dogs.” A fun family activity is to make chatbots, which is are the branched dialogue nodes that drive Alexa Skills. Chatbots for Good is a free online course from IBM Watson for kids to build chatbots that evoke empathy. Little to no background knowledge is required.

Amazon offers a free Skills Kit where you and your child can create trivia games, as well as local city guides, and even branched choose-your-own-adventure stories. The Kit works similarly to Chatbots for Good, and it includes several tutorial videos and templates to get you and your family started!

Photo Courtesy of CNET