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Amy Blake and her kids Oliver, 4, and Isabel, 2, play in their London, Ont., home on July 6, 2018.

GEOFF ROBINS

Whenever Amy Blake’s four-year-old son Oliver wants to listen to songs from his Spotify playlist, he simply says aloud, “Hey Google, play Oliver’s jams” and one of the family’s two Google Home Mini smart speaker devices automatically plays them for him.

At night, her two-year-old daughter Isabel calls out “Good night, Google!” and the devices communicate with the lights in her room to turn them on in her favourite pink hue.

Ever since Blake brought the Google Home Minis home at Christmas, the burger-bun-shaped devices, which are equipped with the artificially intelligent helper Google Assistant, have become an integral part of the family’s daily life. The children often gather around and listen, as a pleasant disembodied voice from the speakers tells them stories, such as Rapunzel or other classic tales. They play games with the devices, including a favourite that makes animal sounds, which the children then have to identify. And whenever Blake suggests they watch a movie, Oliver and Isabel immediately run over to one of the gadgets and say, “Hey Google, play Finding Dory!” Upon their command, it automatically starts the requested film on their television.

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In a family of early adopters, Blake’s children are among the first generation to grow up surrounded by artificially intelligent technologies. The advantages are plenty, Blake says; she and her family find the devices fun and entertaining, and they make life more convenient. But with the introduction of intelligent virtual assistants and AI-powered toys also comes questions about how these technologies will shape this new generation.

How will they affect children’s communication skills and their relationships with real people? How will they affect their expectations around having their demands met? Will being surrounded by smart, interactive technologies affect the way they perceive their own intelligence and their willingness to learn? Will it alter their ability to be alone?

Researchers are only beginning to learn how children think about and interact with smart technologies, never mind how these technologies influence developing minds. But as AI toys and devices become rapidly more sophisticated and widely used (the global market for virtual assistants is expected to grow to 1.8 billion users by 2021, according to a report from the market-research store Research and Markets), some parents and experts argue now is the time to consider their role in children’s future.

Sandra Chang-Kredl, associate professor of the department of education at Concordia University, says she has reservations about the creation of smart technologies that are meant to mimic or even eventually replace human interaction.

“Do we want children to think that toys or objects are just as good as actual pets or actual friends or actual humans? That concerns me,” she says. In the future, she adds, “how is it going to be when children are purposely encouraged to confuse what’s an object and what’s a living thing?”

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Amy Blake talks to her daughter Isabel as her son Oliver reads under the pink glow of a smart lightbulb.

GEOFF ROBINS

While today’s smart technologies are not yet lifelike enough to elicit such confusion, Chang-Kredl says, she already sees some potential drawbacks to AI toys currently on the market, such as Spin Master’s interactive Luvabella doll, which speaks and reacts with movements and facial expressions.

Generally, when children form emotional attachments with their stuffed animals and teddy bears, “what’s important, from a psychoanalytic or psychological perspective, is that they imagine that their toys are alive,” she explains.

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She notes that when children come up with their toys’ responses on their own, they learn symbolic play, or the ability to use objects to represent other objects, and they develop empathy by imagining how their toy feels. But when an AI toy is already programmed with its own personality and voice, “there’s less room for the child to make it up themselves,” she says.

Chang-Kredl also wonders whether the ubiquity of virtual helpers, such as Siri or Google Assistant, will affect young people’s ability to simply sit alone with their feelings, since, at any time, these technologies may allow them to avoid difficult feelings by connecting with someone or something.

Moreover, she points out, it’s much easier for people to say hateful things online than in person, since they don’t see the recipients’ facial expressions. Likewise, with AI toys and devices, she says, “you can be really mean to these toys and you’re not going to hurt it. So, well, what do you learn?”

Toronto parent Samantha Zimmerman says she and her husband have decided against using virtual assistants in their home because they don’t want their two-year-old daughter Georgia to always expect instant gratification.

“We wanted for her, in [her] social development, to learn that you need to ask for something and sometimes you don’t always get it,” Zimmerman says.

Her approach to smart technologies, she says, will be to wait until Georgia expresses interest before introducing them, and then, to have conversations with her about how to use them.

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Indeed, parental involvement is very important for guiding children’s interactions with smart technologies, says Stefania Druga, a research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

Druga and other researchers at the MIT Media Lab have been examining how children think about and interact with intelligent toys and smart devices. In one study, for instance, she and her team watched and interviewed children, ages 3 to 10, and their parents as they played with various technologies, such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home and a robot toy Cozmo. Among their observations was that children tended to regard the devices as friendly based on their voice and tone. Older children were more likely to consider the technologies as smarter than they were, while younger children were more skeptical and were more likely to wonder whether the devices would remember them and whether they were truly friends.

One key insight was the importance of having parents present to help rephrase questions or provide explanations, Druga says. She says she believes children and parents need to have agency in their relationship with smart technologies – in other words, they need to be given the tools to understand how these technologies work and to be able to teach the devices how they would like them to behave. Having a critical understanding of the inner workings of these technologies can help children develop a growth mindset – or the idea that intelligence and talent are acquired rather than fixed traits – and can help them determine how much they can trust a device, she suggests.

Parents often underestimate children’s ability to understand and use simple programs to teach AI technology, she says.

“While [adults] are debating if it’s good or bad or it’s going to take over the world, the kids are building amazing things with it and they’re really understanding these things,” she says.

Blake says in her home there may be some drawbacks to using smart technologies, but the advantages seem to outweigh the negatives. Having the Google Home Minis has meant her children spend less time in front of digital screens. Instead, they’re often using the devices to listen to music and stories.

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While her children are still too young to have homework, Blake isn’t worried about them one day relying on virtual assistants to do their school work for them. On the contrary, she says it will be good for the children to be able to ask them for help when they’re stuck.

Similarly, she sees chatbots, such as AI-powered therapists, as good resources for young people who don’t have anyone else with whom they can talk. “Kids don’t always feel comfortable talking to their parents,” she says.

For her, smart technologies such as her Google Home Minis are not a threat to real life interactions and relationships.

“It’s an interesting tool,” she says – and one that’s about to become more commonplace.