While researchers applaud Amazon’s safeguards to ensure the tech is safe for kids, some experts are concerned that generative AI could lead children to believe these algorithms are more intelligent than they actually are.
Generative AI, which is known for churning out fantastical art based on text prompts, is now sneaking into one of the most sacred bonding experiences for parents and children: bedtime storytelling.
Amazon is hopping into the generative AI craze with a new Alexa feature that creates short, five-scene stories for kids based on a few prompts. Called ‘Create With Alexa,’ the feature lets children and parents select from given themes like underwater, enchanted forest and space exploration and pick a character, a descriptive word and a color. Then, they sit back and wait as the AI comes up with different stories, visuals, audio dialogues and background music.
With Amazon hopping aboard the generative AI craze, some experts say that the company has created safeguards to ensure that the technology isn’t spouting anything inappropriate for young ears, and Create With Alexa could help foster more shared experiences for children and parents. But AI researchers also warn that stories made with generative AI could mystify children’s understanding of AI’s capabilities and intelligence.
The feature, which is available on Echo Show devices, relies on generative AI, algorithms that use existing content to create new content. Specifically, it implements language models, which ingest large amounts of text to learn how to create sentences similar to how people talk. The algorithm that powers Create With Alexa is trained on a database of commercially available visuals as well as Amazon’s own proprietary content.
Eshan Bhatnagar, head of product for Alexa AI at Amazon, says that Create With Alexa was designed with safety in mind. The technology has three safeguards in place, including content filtering, training the AI on a curated dataset that is free of toxic content, and most importantly, setting up a structured and restricted experience. “We wanted to avoid the garbage in garbage out kind of tendency of AI,” says Bhatnagar, referencing the likelihood of AI to render improper content based on the type of inputs fed into it. “We are being cautious, and conservative in our approach to how we want to expose some of the generative capabilities to our customers.”
Stefania Druga, a researcher on creative AI at the University of Washington, says Amazon’s decision to build Alexa’s new storytelling feature by structuring it around a few input prompts that ask users to select from a given set of templates can help make generative AI safer for kids. “I think this approach of providing curated templates, and really trying to curate the experience and control the types of generations that can be entered into the system is very promising,” Druga told Forbes.
But these safeguards can’t fully protect kids from the influence of intelligent computer systems like Alexa. Druga found in her research paper “Hey Google is it OK if I eat you?” Initial Explorations in Child-Agent Interaction” that interacting with voice assistants like Alexa and Google Home can influence how children understand the intelligence of computers. She says Create With Alexa could mystify the abilities of AI for children, influencing their judgments about how intelligent the computer actually is and whether it’s a trustworthy source.
“What I’ve seen in my research is that the kids don’t even know how to read and write when they start interacting with a voice assistant. And if that’s their first introduction into searching anything on the web, that really colors their experience on how they process information,” Druga says. “Because if it’s spoken to them with a nice voice as a human would talk, they don’t really see that this is just like the first result from a search on the web, then it’s harder to develop this critical sense of whether they should trust this or not.”
Rather than showcasing generative AI as a magical and all-knowing technology, it should be seen as a technology that can be tinkered with and used to further a craft, Druga says. In order to do so, it’s also important to make sure children understand the technology and know what is happening under the hood. “I think it’s important to not give them these applications and content already pre-chewed but also to give them tools of creation with this technology,” she says.
Sandra Cortesi, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, says that parents should steer clear of technologies that would make their children passively consume media. In the case of Create With Alexa, Cortesi questions whether parents want to expose their children to more screen time in the form of video storytelling. “I prefer technologies that have some kind of active character to it than just another thing where you watch and consume,” says Cortesi.
This isn’t the first time Amazon has ventured into storytelling technology. In 2017, the company launched Magic Door, an interactive adventure game that lets users decide each step of a story. The nonlinear experience doesn’t use any kind of AI but has 200 different scenes. Similar to ‘Create With Alexa,’ it gives users the agency to choose prompts such as settings like forests, seas, and enchanted lands and decide which scene will appear next. Earlier this year, Amazon also launched CodeWhisperer, a machine learning-powered coding assistant.
Over the last year, high-profile startups have launched buzzy text-to-image generative AI models like Dall-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, which have captured the imaginations of millions on social media. Startups behind these types of algorithms such as Stability AIand Runway ML have raised tens of millions of dollars in venture funding and garnered high valuations. OpenAI, the company that released Dall-E 2, unveiled ChatGPT last week, a chatbot that is able to write essays, code and provide detailed (but sometimes inaccurate) answers to questions.
These companies use machine learning to generate new text and image content rather than combining the two in a video format as Amazon Alexa has done. But other generative AI tools focus on storytelling, including Storywizard AI, which uses generative AI to create stories with images based on plots that illustrate moral concepts like friendship and overcoming fear, and Novel AI, which touts itself as “a GPT-powered sandbox for your imagination.”
Storytelling that uses generative AI can be a means of inspiration and creativity among children. Cortesi says that the stories produced by generative AI could inspire users to build fanfiction communities online and create additional stories that build on what the AI produces.
Amazon Alexa’s Bhatnagar says the tablet will never replace the storybook; instead, it will augment the experience. Cortesi adds that traditional storytelling is far from being thrown out for a digital version.
“For parents and children, stories are something we can be nostalgic about,” says Cortesi. “I still remember when my parents told me stories.”
“I hope that for parents, who already have a ton of tasks and responsibilities, they will not just give this tool to their children and say, ‘You go ahead, do the story. Good night.’”
By Rashi Shrivastava, Forbes Staff