Tech

Amazon will teach your kids to say please

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A new version of Amazon's Alexa artificial intelligence assistant has been announced, with a feature that will teach children to say please and thank you.

The Echo Dot Kids Edition is a child-friendly version of the Amazon's version of the smart assistant – artificially intelligent voice activated helpers like Apple's Siri or the Google Assistant.

Released this week, the kids' product includes a new function that suggests children say please when they ask Amazon something – and responds with positive reinforcement when they do.

New features to encourage politeness were introduced after some parents raised concerns that Alexa and products like it were teaching bad behaviour by responding positively when children made rude demands.

The additions are part of a raft of specially-for-kids additions that, Amazon says, make the voice-activated Echo box a "kid-friendly DJ, comedian and storyteller" who's "always getting smarter".

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The new product also features special controls that allow parents to shut down Alexa or monitor their children's activity on the device.

Kids can play true-or-false games and ask Alexa questions – getting immediate answers to musings like "how long is a day on Mars?"

Reporters who have trialled Alexa have also said responses for kids are more nuanced and quirky than the basic factual updates on the grown-up version.

When kids how many planets there are, for example, the speaker will tell them that Pluto is not a planet – but that it's still "awesome".

And when kids say they're distressed – if they're being bullied, for example – the device will encourage them to speak to a responsible adult.

Parents can automatically filter explicit content and access a raft of games and audio books specially for children on platforms like Netflix or Disney. Making it easy to access media in this way is part of the business plan for Amazon's smart speakers, sold at around cost value and used as a platform to make sales.

"Just ask and Alexa will play music, answer questions, read stories, tell jokes, and more," Amazon's website says. "All with younger ears in mind."

Unsurprisingly, the new focus on kids has raised some eyebrows among tech commentators.

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Slate ran the news with a headline suggestion Alexa could "raise your child for you", while Buzzfeed raised concerns that a device communicating with an individual day-in-day-out, from early childhood, could amass personal data of as yet unprecedented quality and detail.

The impact of AI assistants on childhood development is also a concern, as devices like Alexa become not just helpers but members of the family and ever-present friends to children.

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