Sunday, November 27, 2022

Google’s Assistant is getting parental controls. Here’s how they work.

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For the first time since its 2016 launch, Google Assistant is getting parental controls.

You might think the chatty virtual assistant, which the company says is used by 700 million people a month, already had some. For years Google has allowed parents to grant children Assistant access by way of its Family Link app, but offered relatively few restrictions.

In the next few weeks, when these tools land on a smart speaker, screen or clock near you, you’ll be able to restrict children from placing calls, asking for music and videos from specific sources, and interacting with specific Assistant devices. And for moments when their attention needs to be focused elsewhere, you can set “downtime” periods when the Assistant won’t respond.

These new tools started rolling out to Google Assistant-powered devices last week, including products the company didn’t build itself. There’s one notable exception: Google Assistant on smartphones won’t get these updates because the company doesn’t consider them “shared” devices.

Parental controls are just the start. In the coming weeks, those devices will also gain features to communicate more effectively with young people, such as a new dictionary offering kid-friendly definitions when responding to a child’s voice it recognizes and new voices that speak more slowly and expressively.

“Using technology, and especially voice devices, in the home allows [children] to learn new things, indulge them in their curiosities, tap into their creative and inquisitive minds without having to look at a screen,” said Payam Shodjai, Google Assistant’s senior director of product management said in an interview.

Google privacy settings to change now

Allowing your children to use Google Assistant with these new features requires a few steps.

First, you have to create a Google account for them. (Do this using the company’s Family Link app, since you’ll need it again later.) Then, add your child’s voice to your smart home devices, so the Google Assistant can react appropriately. Finally, in Family Link, go to Controls → Content restrictions → Google Assistant → Parental controls to begin setting limits.

Meanwhile, changing the Assistant’s voice or accessing the Kids Dictionary is easier — just ask your smart speaker to do it.

Google isn’t the only company trying to make its virtual assistant more accessible to the young. Amazon, the company’s biggest rival in the smart speaker market, rolled out its first wave of child-friendly Alexa skills in the summer of 2017; it has since sold versions of its inexpensive Echo Dot speakers that resemble cutesy tigers, penguins and dragons. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Though a pandemic boom in sales of smart-home devices has started to wane, data from research firm IDC suggests that shipments of smart speakers will continue to grow — if only slightly — between now and 2026. That means more opportunities for Google and Amazon to introduce themselves to a younger generation of users, and continued questions about the role voice assistants play in homes with children.

In an article published online for the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, researchers wondered whether the kinds of terse, transactional conversations people typically have with services like Alexa and Google Assistant would impede children’s ability to develop certain social graces.

“While in normal human interactions, a child would usually receive constructive feedback if they were to behave inappropriately, this is beyond the scope of a smart device,” said Anmol Arora, the article’s co-author, in a press release.

Ask Help Desk: Smart speakers can get dumber after learning your voice

From his perch at Google, Shodjai said that in some of those cases, children already understand that they shouldn’t talk to, say, their parents in the same way as they would a product. Since launch, the company has also added features meant to reinforce good etiquette — in late 2018, it updated the Assistant with a new “pretty please” mode, where requests that include a “please” or “thank you” would garner a grateful response.

Since then, Google hasn’t disclosed plans to change the way Assistant responds to politeness — or the lack thereof — but Shodjai says it’s something they’re “looking into.

But what about the risk of a child thinking its relationship with a system like Google Assistant is more than it is? For some children — including Shodjai’s own nieces — their first meaningful exposure to technology is through voice assistants around the house. Could the addition of new, more engaging voices lead to an assumption of friendship? Or even something more familial?

Based on the studies he sees, Shodjai seems confident that “kids do understand the difference between talking to a digital system versus a human.” Even so, he concedes that this is a matter that needs to be tracked closely over time, especially considering how much more sophisticated Google wants Assistant to act when it grows up.

“If we look ahead, say five, 10, 20 years down the road, we envision an Assistant that is even more intelligent, even more capable, even more personalized, that helps you more proactively,” he said.

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