Be careful around the home – children say Alexa has emotions and a mind of its own

Is technology ticklish? Can a smart speaker get scared? And does the robot vacuum mind if you put it in the cupboard when you go on holidays?

Psychologists from Duke University in the US asked young children some pretty unusual questions to better understand how they perceive different technologies.

The researchers interviewed 127 children aged 4 – 11 years old visiting a science museum with their families. They asked a series of questions seeking children’s opinions on whether technologies – including an Amazon Alexa smart speaker, a Roomba vacuum cleaner and a Nao humanoid robot – can think, feel and act on purpose, and whether it was ok to neglect, yell or mistreat them.

In general, the children thought Alexa was more intelligent than a Roomba, but believed neither technology should be yelled at or harmed. 

Lead author Teresa Flanagan says “even without a body, young children think the Alexa has emotions and a mind.” 

“Kids don’t seem to think a Roomba has much mental abilities like thinking or feeling,” she says. “But kids still think we should treat it well. We shouldn’t hit or yell at it even if it can’t hear us yelling.”

Overall, children rejected the idea that technologies were ticklish and or could feel pain. But they thought Alexa might get upset after someone is mean to it.

While all children thought it was wrong to mistreat technology, the survey results suggest the older children were, the more likely they were to consider it slightly more acceptable to harm technology.

Children in the study gave different justifications for why they thought it wasn’t ok to hurt technology. One 10-year-old said it was not okay to yell at the technology because, “the microphone sensors might break if you yell too loudly,” whereas another 10-year-old said it was not okay because “the robot will actually feel really sad.”

The researchers say the study’s findings offer insights into the evolving relationship between children and technology and raise important questions about the ethical treatment of AI and machines in general. For example, should parents model good behaviour for by thanking technologies for their help?

 The results are published in Developmental Psychology. 

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