(Pocket-lint) - Amazon debuted Alexa in the US in 2014 (the UK was 2016) and released the first version of Alexa for kids in 2018. The retail giant recently debuted the Echo Dot Kids in the UK and to mark the occasion we spoke to some of the people that have worked on the project to bring the Echo Dot Kids to the UK.
"We say that Alexa speaks kid", explains Glenn Millard, head of Amazon Kids+ UK. "So Alexa has a lot of age-appropriate suggestions at the ready. For example, all kids have to say is 'Alexa, I'm bored' and they'll be able to discover new games, new skills. You can ask for a joke, a song and much more.
"And since Alexa is built in the cloud, it's always getting smarter. Alexa will continue to learn lots of different information every day."
Josh Sherman, director of Amazon Kids, explains how the company evolved Alexa to be child friendly. "Even in those early days, we knew that these were going to be devices that were going to end up in kitchens and living rooms - places where the family gathered. And so from the beginning, we were thinking about it being family-focused so no profanity, lots of jokes [and] aster eggs - that kind of stuff so that everybody in the family could enjoy it."
Sherman says that it took a while for Echo Dot Kids to be launched in the UK because Amazon "had a lot of work to do to localise it and make it a product that would stand in the UK as being made for UK customers. We didn't want to take the United States product and bring it over."
Sherman talked us through some of the thinking that went into developing Alexa for kids. "Children obviously are learning to speak at a very young age but they're still mastering speech even at six, seven. I have a 10-year-old and you know sometimes he's still, you know, working through things and figuring out how to how to articulate what's in his mind, so we had to teach Alexa to understand kids. Pronunciation can be a skill that's developing and there are some very common consonant flip flops where kids will replace one letter with another letter. And so we had to teach Alexa to react to Awexa.
"The other thing is, kids have a higher-pitched voice, they are still forming the ideas in their head, they're talking so that means they can pause or they can speak very quickly for short bursts and then stop and then think about it and start up again.
"So we had to teach Alexa to be patient and really listen to all of the words and try and pull that all together in context as much as possible so that Alexa can get the best possible response to kids who are still learning how to speak."
Different questions, different answers
The work also included changing the way Alexa responds to questions and also the answers it gives.
"We wanted to think about kids and where they are. You can't rattle off a very complicated answer to a five-year-old, you have to meet them where they are with the vocabulary they have or the concepts they have. Kids have this wonderful way of asking such simple questions about the world around them. If you're not careful you'll end up all the way down the rabbit hole and explaining very complicated topics.
Sherman gives the example of "why is the sky blue". You can give the Newtonian physics answer or have a conversation that's more appropriate. "So we want to always answer kids' questions, but we have to meet them where they are."
"Obviously, these [devices] are going to be used primarily by children they need to have proper controls, they can't shop with the Echo Dot kids, they can't call strangers. You know you can't do those kinds of things that might give parents concern so we've thought a lot about those issues as well.
"And then we also knew that there are some questions that… you want the parent to address. Yeah. And so we had to think about how we're going to be empathetic of a child asking these kinds of questions but then help them get back to a parent - whether that's 'is Santa Claus real' or 'where do babies come from'."
Thinking about privacy
Anne Toth, director of Alexa Trust, also talked us through some of the privacy implications for having a device that will – probably – be a child's room.
"We thought about trust and we thought about privacy, we're thinking about you know you're putting a speaker in your home, and we recognise that people might want to turn it off from time to time." Echo Dot Kids has a physical mute button and you can also ask Alexa to stop listening of course.
"We're now building out a platform already having had some very conscious design privacy baked into the product," continues Toth.
"So now we can offer that to children. So when they see the blue light on the device the child knows that Alexa is now listening, and it works just as well for a five-year-old as it does for an 85-year-old or for a 15-year-old.
"The voice history is the piece of transparency that we offer to customers to let them know that they can see their transcripts, they can hear their voice recordings they can choose how long to store them they can choose to delete them. They can choose to never store them. And [with the] dashboard for Parental Controls [parents can] know that their child is asking about Santa Claus or where babies come from or why is Pluto not a real planet anymore.
"Privacy's like adding a little bit of friction into a relationship. When you first enter into a relationship with a person, and I don't know them very well, you know, there are things that you would do.
"The more conversational and casual interactions that we want customers to have down the road can only happen if they learn to trust the device through the types of interactions that they have in the beginning.
"So it's basically a relationship that we're building with customers over time."