Alexa Apparently Isn’t All Powerful

No Bungo About It

Are Alexa and Siri teaching our children to be rude?

By John Salak –  

Too many people are probably talking too much to robots or as they’re known in the trade, conversational agents, such as Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. It’s bad enough that adults are constantly asking these disembodied voices to answer this or that, but young children also can get pretty bossy with these verbal robots. 

The bigger issue may be whether Siri and Alexa are turning talking toddlers and older children into rude and demanding agents of change. Well, lots of young’uns may be annoying and rude but conversational agents probably aren’t the cause. 

Sure, young kids increasingly delight in asking Siri or Alexa to tune up their favorite song or even dial mom, dad or a grandparent. But this newfound power probably isn’t destroying their sensitivity when talking to others, according to researchers at the University of Washington 

The university’s team explored this by having a conversational agent teach children ages 5 to 10 to use the word “bungo” to ask it to speak more quickly. The kids caught on fast, blurting out bungo whenever the robot slowed down. They even used the word with their parents, but more as a joke than a command.  

In fact, children rarely used bungo even when researchers who purposely spoke slowly to test their patience. Instead, the children being examined simply waited for the researchers to finish talking before responding. 

“We were curious to know whether kids were picking up conversational habits from their everyday interactions with Alexa and other agents,” said senior author Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor at the university. “A lot of the existing research looks at agents designed to teach a particular skill, like math. That’s somewhat different from the habits a child might incidentally acquire by chatting with one of these things.” 

Almost two-thirds of the children in the program used the word bungo the first time the conversational agent slowed its speech and all of them learned to apply it after a short time.  

“The kids showed really sophisticated social awareness in their transfer behaviors,” Hiniker said. “They saw the conversation with the agent as a place where it was appropriate to use the word bungo. With parents (in the researcher center), they saw it as a chance to bond and play. And then with the researcher, who was a stranger, they instead took the socially safe route of using the more traditional conversational norm of not interrupting someone who’s talking to you.” 

Researchers also wanted to test how children would use bungo ”in the wild,” effectively away from the university. Consequently, they asked parents to try slowing down their speech at home. Slightly more than half the parents reported that their kids continued to use bungo at home. But, and it’s a big but, parents said their children were playing with them as if it “was an inside joke.”  

“There is a very deep sense for kids that robots are not people, and they did not want that line blurred,” Hiniker said. “So, for the children who didn’t mind bringing this interaction to their parents, it became something new for them. It wasn’t like they were starting to treat their parent like a robot. They were playing with them and connecting with someone they love.” 

While the university’s findings are undoubtedly reassuring to many, the researchers warned that conversational agents may still subtly influence children’s habits, including language use and tone.    

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