Just how much technology is good in children’s lives?

No parent would consider a school up to snuff if it didn’t contain computers, even pre-schools. The iPad has become the must-have accessory for car trips to prevent repeated queries of, “Are we there yet?” And using the Pad, kids can answer that, along with how far they have to go, and where the next McDonalds is so they can pester their parents about making a quick stop.

But even more interesting (or intrusive) is the growing use of artificial intelligence (AI) in home devices and those specifically aimed at kids. The device that comes to mind is made by Mattel (“You Can Tell … It’s Swell”) and is called Aristotle.

Designed to start out as a night light and soothing noise source (it can play white noise or a lullaby if it senses baby movement), it has a camera that you can monitor from your phone. It also can read stories from its selection, play some games like animal sounds and teach ABCs and 1-2-3s. It has built-in Alexa capabilities, but also reacts to the “Aristotle” hailing, when a child is asking more childish questions.

The Alexa capability will allow it to answer homework questions and “grow up” with the child. This costs around $300 and is expected to be released this summer.

This joins millions of standard voice assistants in homes. Expected sales of things like Amazon’s Echo/Alexa, Google Home and Microsoft’s Cortana will exceed 25 million units this year, compared to 1.7 million in 2015.

AI has been getting better constantly, which helps promote the use of these devices. The ability to understand questions and look up a decent answer increases dependence — but increases frustration when it doesn’t work.

How Much?

Kids are already glued to screens, with phones being the dawn-to-midnight accomplice of every middle-schooler (well, maybe not dawn, because they won’t wake up until noon if left alone). Adding the ability to answer questions simply by voice command is further ingratiation and addictive.

Does this mean kids are less likely to ask a parent about something? Especially if the parent then uses Alexa to get an answer? Probably. Most children will accept “the voice’s” answer as more correct than a parent’s anyway.

This is probably not a good thing. Same with the command structure used for questioning — even though Aristotle can be set to require a “please” before it will answer a question, everything else does not. So kids are more direct and less polite, and it spills over to other conversations. Not good, either.

Wait, There’s More

What do kids and computers have to do with advertising? A lot, apparently. A toy called Pie Face, which involves hitting yourself in the face with a dollop of whipped cream while wearing a silly mask, was the largest-selling game in 2016 and the fourth-best-selling toy overall.

Sales were powered by postings of people doing just that. Hasbro, the toy’s seller, has found that 50% of purchasers post a video of themselves on Facebook or YouTube getting pasted. They saw a toy that was originally created by a small British company and had gone viral with clips from a grandfather and grandson, recognized the potential and ran with it.

The game-changing aspect of this is that very little traditional advertising is needed, which is a great cost advantage. If you can produce something that people can video acting silly and post, it will spread. Goofy helps, with the added aspect of making the user the star of his or her own video.

So, the desire to be cool on social media works. Other toy manufacturers are rushing to use this for games involving water-filled eggs, etc. Expect more.

More, More, More

As this is written, news comes of Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods for $13.7 billion. With 431 stores nationwide and a workforce of 90,000 employees, it is the 30th largest retailer in the U.S. It has had a few rough years, laying off 1,500 workers in 2015; but, in general, it pays above-average wages and offers decent benefits, such as insurance premiums that go down as the years of service increase.

Amazon opened a grocery store in Seattle last year that has no cashiers. It has sensors that detect what you buy and bills your Amazon account directly. Obviously, this is seen as a large threat by Whole Foods employees, who worry about automation like this eating their jobs.

Self-service is not limited to Amazon, of course. Any one of us who has looked at the cashier’s lines at Giant or Safeway and slipped into their self-check has contributed to this. The stores encourage this by limiting the number of humans, pushing us into self-service mode, which enables them to say that we use it and thus must like it (we don’t).

It turns out that cashier is the second-largest occupation in the country. It’s not the best job, but is often something that allows people to survive. It will be interesting to see what Amazon does and how it affects the industry.


Cliff Feldwick is owner of Riverside Computing and offers PC troubleshooting, network setups and data retrieval when not hating self-service checkouts that can’t tell a carrot from a cupcake. He can be reached at 410-880-0171 or at [email protected]. Older columns are online at http://feldwick.com.