Sick of arguing with your children about how long they must brush their teeth? Ask Amazon's Alexa.

Maybe you're weary of entertaining your baby with airplane noises while you glide spoonfuls of mashed vegetables toward their face. Or you can't keep your own eyes open while reading your toddlers bedtime stories. Yep, your voice-enabled, A.I.-informed helper can handle it all.

Amazon's library of Alexa "Skills," entertainment, and productivity functions accessible to owners of Echo devices is growing by the day. One particularly robust category is Kids, which includes Skills such as Amazon Storytime, Kids Sing Along, Lego Activities, and the SpongeBob Challenge. With the Short Bedtime Story Skill, saying the command "Alexa, tell bedtime story to Oliver" prompts the device to deliver a personalized story with the child's name incorporated into it.

Most of the Skills for kids have been created by ostensibly well-intentioned developers working solo or in small companies. Still, for many parents, there's concern over children so frequently and naturally interacting with voice A.I.-enabled devices. With widespread adoption of Alexa and Google Home has come a tremendous amount of hand-wringing about kids bossing the little boxes around, or just preferring to banter with them over parents, siblings, or friends. As we prepare for a generation partially raised on home assistants, psychologists are asking questions about their potential effects on a child's empathy and interpersonal skills. "These devices don't have emotional intelligence," Allison Druin, a University of Maryland professor who studies how children use technology, told The Washington Post

It's certainly too early to say what the long-term psychological impact will be. But to complicate matters even further, companies large and small are beginning to produce content specifically for young children to teenagers for dissemination through these voice channels. And these companies, in spite of restrictions on advertising imposed by Amazon and other device makers, are not leaving out their brand names or kid-friendly characters. So while parents grapple with the price of convenient, time-saving child care assistance, businesses are jumping at what they see as a huge opportunity.

Help with common parenting functions

A micro-podcast for kids to listen to while brushing their teeth, produced by Gimlet Media, is simple to call up on a smart speaker. With food, pet, or geography trivia, the two-to-three-minutes of audio, called Chompers, is entertaining enough to make some children enthusiastic brushers. It even won the first-ever Cannes Lion award for an audio skill. What listeners may not notice is that the entire endeavor is sponsored by Procter & Gamble's Oral-B and Crest Kids.

The brands aren't touted on the show or in ads, though, when Chompers is called up through the Alexa ecosystem. That's due to the ban on explicit advertising within Alexa Skills. (It's allowed within versions of the podcast accessed elsewhere.)

Plenty of adults are comfortable interacting with brand integrations to their voice-command-enabled devices--say, ordering a pizza by saying, "Alexa, open Domino's." But when it comes to children's interactions, brands will need to be careful not to overstep. That's the challenge facing Sprout, an organic baby-and-toddler-food company, with its new foray into the technology. Working with its creative agency, Walrus, it decided that a natural extension of its nutritious-eating mission was to provide entertainment for kids--to make their food fun. On July 16, it debuted an Alexa Skill called "Eat and Sing With Sophie Sprout."

"With the rise of the Amazon devices and Google, it just seemed like a great way to inject fun in the otherwise sometimes-stressful eating time," says Sunita Adams, Sprout's vice president of marketing.

The Skill includes nine original songs about butternut squash, chickpeas, and other healthy foods. There's also a track with airplane-zooming noises to assist with baby feeding. A separate track is tailored to encouraging little ones to take additional sips from Sprout pouches--those plastic containers of purees babies slurp from. 

The Sophie Sprout application is likely to be used more by parents than the toddlers who'd like the songs themselves, but still, its very existence begs the question: Are we entering an age of robo-parenting, even if we have the best intentions? And how much are we willing to let brands control these interactions with our children? 

Adams says while Sprout is the first company of its kind to be doing this, the aim was to encourage more parental interactions with toddlers--not cause fewer. "We developed it more as a way to get them off their devices," she says, nodding to the notion that speech controls allow family members to control music or games without having to reach for a phone, tablet, or computer. "Even though it is a device."

For those totally willing to let the robot overlords parent their children, there's a Skill called "Tell My Kids," which randomly chooses household chores to designate to children. Another, "Kids Court," allows multiple children to hash out their complaints against one another and get a verdict.

Published on: Jul 26, 2018