With their kid-targeted games, activities, books and even homework help, what parent wouldn’t want Google Home or Amazon Echo, the voice-activated home assistants that can turn off your lights and read your kids a story, to make life run more smoothly? But it takes work to make these devices useful as more than a very expensive kitchen timer. And as with any artificial intelligence technology that “learns” your habits, the gains may not be as great as what you give up. Here is a quick guide to what these devices can do, how well they work and what the privacy issues are before you buy one. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
What do I need to do to make them work? Pretty much right out of the box, folks can use voice commands to “wake” the devices (say: “Alexa” or “okay, Google”) and ask them to do simple things like set a timer, tell a joke, or read a weather forecast. But to do more, you need to dig into the companion smartphone apps to connect your accounts and enable your preferences.
Once you personalize your device, you’ll be able to stream music from services including Spotify, Amazon Music, or Google Play Music. You can also select preferred news sources, restaurant delivery services and more. It can be hard to remember everything you have enabled on the device, and if you forget exactly how to ask for something, you’ll need to pull up your app.
How well do they work with kids? Both Amazon and Google offer tons of content for kids (called “skills” on Echo and “actions” on Home) from established providers, including Disney, Sesame Street, and Highlights magazine. You can use the device to play games, read audiobooks, recite jokes, provide homework help and activate guided Zen meditation. New stuff is being added to each service all the time, and your kids might enjoy browsing for features on your linked phone app and trying them out with you. It’s not unlike shopping for new apps -- it takes time to find what you want, set it up and figure out how it works. But even without kid-specific games, these assistants can be helpful to kids and families in basic ways, like looking up simple facts, doing math (no cheating on homework!), checking a sports score, and setting a timeout clock. Check out our list of the best Alexa skills for kids, tweens and teens.
Are there any hidden costs? A lot of the skills and actions you can add are free, but you still have to pay for memberships and subscriptions -- for example, to Amazon Prime, Google Play Music or Spotify. Amazon and Google will be experimenting with other subscription models in the future, so to maximize the value of the device, you’ll need to stay on top of new features. If you’re interested in smart home products, including lightbulbs, thermostats, and home security systems, be aware that they are more expensive than traditional versions and often require an extra piece of equipment.
What could go wrong? Though each service is trying to appeal to families, the most common uses of Alexa and Home are very practical, adult-oriented activities, such as reporting commute times, creating shopping lists and announcing upcoming calendar events. To make sure kids don’t get into trouble using the device’s basic tools, you may need to play around with settings (and set some verbal expectations).
- Raunchy music. Remember, Echo and Home will only play music that’s connected to your account. So, to limit explicit lyrics, you should only link services that allow you to set parental controls, such as Amazon Prime Music, Google Play and Pandora. You’ll need to set content filters in the apps themselves.
- Unauthorized purchases. Make sure kids know to ask for permission before buying things or adding items to your shopping list. You can also prevent unwanted purchases by clicking a few settings in each device's respective apps. In the Alexa app, you can turn off voice purchasing altogether or keep it on but require a PIN for all purchases. In the Google Home app in the Payments section, toggle off Pay with Your Assistant.
- Social risks. Child-development experts and sociologists are warning about the impact interacting with AI has on kids. A kid growing up with a home assistant must learn to use the device’s way of interacting, including making demands, having limited conversational abilities and other traits that don’t prepare you for the nuances of human communication. Anytime you introduce a new technology into your home, you’ll need to guide kids on how to use it and what the expectations are. It’s best to remind kids that even though Alexa doesn’t mind if you’re rude, parents do.
- Creepy “drop-ins.” Both devices allow you to make phone calls (“Hey Google, call Toys 'R' Us!"). But Amazon is offering something called “Drop In” that allows you to make voice and video calls to an Echo device in another location — sort of like Skype or FaceTime. If you have devices in different rooms of your home, you can use Drop In like an intercom system to “drop in” and let the kids know dinner is ready. With room-to-room Echos, you can start listening immediately — no one has to answer the call. You can also use Drop In if you have elderly relatives living elsewhere that you need to check on. The feature has to be manually enabled for each contact you want to use it with, and if you Drop In on another home, the receiver can decline the call. If you use the screen-based Amazon Show, you’ll appear in a frosted window until the call is accepted.
Should I worry about privacy? Absolutely. The privacy and security issues related to these devices are complex, evolving, and potentially serious (and cannot all be covered in this article). If you have an Amazon or Google account, you’ve already accepted some of the privacy risks of online life. With Alexa and Home, the same companies that track what you buy, what you watch, where you go online and even your contacts are right there in your home. And they’re listening. Each company offers some privacy settings in its apps (like the ability to delete your command history), and you can turn off the microphone when you don’t want it to hear you (although it comes back on when you ask for it; which is weird if it wasn’t supposed to be listening).
Neither company is super transparent about how it gathers, stores and uses the information it collects, and both leave open potential future uses for all that data — essentially getting you to opt into a future transaction that has not yet been identified. Some experts speculate that the more comfortable people get with the device, the more Google and Amazon will infringe on your privacy. For example, they could give transcripts of audio recordings to third-party app developers.
What about kids' privacy? This is a huge concern and was the biggest contributor to the cancellation of Aristotle, Mattel’s proposed kid-targeted home assistant. That device was nixed in 2017 after an outcry over third parties collecting sensitive information about children. Both Echo and Home allow you to create individual user profiles for each member of the household, including kids. And both companies offer voice profiles for different family members with different privileges for each person — that’s right, you can train the devices to recognize your kids' voices. Although kids' accounts require parental consent, they supply Amazon and Google with lots of information about the littlest members of your household, possibly including matters you’d prefer to keep private, such as medical issues, citizenship status or problems in school. The companies encrypt that data, and they don’t store it forever. But having that information “in the cloud” means it potentially could be used by third parties to whom you haven’t specifically given consent. Plus, it makes your information vulnerable to data breaches. For now, it’s safest to limit user profiles to adult members of the household.
What else do I need to know? One of the reasons Amazon and Google are vying to be your go-to home assistant is because the brand you choose pretty much locks you into that company’s products and services. Each company offers a slew of related devices designed for its respective technology universe (for example, Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire TV Stick streaming media devices). Each company is also selling the content that plays on those devices.
Caroline Knorr is Common Sense Media’s parenting editor. This piece first ran at CommonSenseMedia.org.