By Deirdre Tynan • 20 September 2021 • 9:51
Despite fears that kids would misuse tech like Siri or Alexa, it is not making them bossier or ruder, researchers have found.
A research team at the University of Washington had a conversational agent like Siri or Alexa teach 22 children between the ages of five and 10 to use the word “bungo” to ask it to speak more quickly. The children readily used the word when a robot slowed down its speech. While most children did use bungo in conversations with their parents, it became a source of play or an inside joke about acting like a robot. But when a researcher spoke slowly to the children, the kids rarely used bungo, and often patiently waited for the researcher 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, a UW assistant professor in the Information School. “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.”
The researchers recruited 22 families from the Seattle area to participate in a five-part study. This project took place before the Covid-19 pandemic, so each child visited a lab with one parent and one researcher. For the first part of the study, children spoke to a simple animated robot or cactus on a tablet screen like Siri or Alexa that also displayed the text of the conversation.
On the back end, another researcher who was not in the room asked each child questions, which the app translated into a synthetic voice and played for the child. The researcher listened to the child’s responses and reactions over speakerphone.
At first, as children spoke to one of the two conversational agents (the robot or the cactus), it told them: “When I’m talking, sometimes I begin to speak very slowly. You can say ‘bungo’ to remind me to speak quickly again.”
After a few minutes of chatting with a child, the app switched to a mode where it would periodically slow down the agent’s speech until the child said “bungo.” Then the researcher pressed a button to immediately return the agent’s speech to normal speed. During this session, the agent reminded the child to use bungo if needed. The conversation continued until the child had practiced using bungo at least three times.
The majority of the children, 64 per cent, remembered to use bungo the first time the agent slowed its speech, and all of them learned the routine by the end of this session.
Then the children were introduced to the other Siri or Alexa-like agent. This agent also started to periodically speak slowly after a brief conversation at normal speed. While the agent’s speech also returned to normal speed once the child said “bungo,” this agent did not remind them to use that word. Once the child said “bungo” five times or let the agent continue speaking slowly for five minutes, the researcher in the room ended the conversation.
By the end of this session, 77 percent of the children had successfully used bungo with this agent.
At this point, the researcher in the room left. Once alone, the parent chatted with the child and then, as with the robot and the cactus, randomly started speaking slowly. The parent didn’t give any reminders about using the word bungo.
Only 19 parents conducted this part of the study. Of the children who completed this part, 68 per cent used bungo in conversation with their parents. Many of them used it with affection. Some children did so enthusiastically, often cutting their parents off in mid-sentence. Others expressed hesitation or frustration, asking their parents why they were acting like robots.
When the researcher returned, they had a similar conversation with the child: normal at first, followed by slower speech. In this situation, only 18 per cent of the 22 children used bungo with the researcher. None of them commented on the researcher’s slow speech, though some of them made knowing eye contact with their parents.
“The kids showed really sophisticated social awareness in their transfer behaviours,” Hiniker said. “They saw the conversation with the second agent as a place where it was appropriate to use the word bungo. With parents, 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.”
After this session in the lab, the researchers wanted to know how bungo would fare “in the wild,” so they asked parents to try slowing down their speech at home over the next 24 hours.
Of the 20 parents who tried this at home, 11 reported that the children continued to use bungo. These parents described the experiences as playful, enjoyable and “like an inside joke.” For the children who expressed skepticism in the lab, many continued that behavior at home, asking their parents to stop acting like robots or refusing to respond.
“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.”
Although these findings suggest that children will treat Siri or Alexa differently from the way they treat people, it’s still possible that conversations with an agent might subtly influence children’s habits — such as using a particular type of language or conversational tone — when they speak to other people, Hiniker said.
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Deirdre Tynan is an award-winning journalist who enjoys bringing the best in news reporting to Spain’s largest English-language newspaper, Euro Weekly News. She has previously worked at The Mirror, Ireland on Sunday and for news agencies, media outlets and international organisations in America, Europe and Asia. A huge fan of British politics and newspapers, Deirdre is equally fascinated by the political scene in Madrid and Sevilla. She moved to Spain in 2018 and is based in Jaen.
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