Tech & Kids

What is the future of
voice assistant technology?

From Siri to Alexa, see what experts say about voice assistant technology and what to expect for the future.

What is voice assistant technology?

Most children use voice assistants in their every day life through Siri or Google technology on smartphones. But virtual assistants, and voice assistants in particular, work in unique ways to support users.

Voice assistants (VAs) are a type of technology that uses artificial intelligence to respond to voice commands. A range of devices can use this technology — from smartwatches to smart speakers — to support users.

Most children use voice assistant technologies through their parents’ devices (like Siri on iPhones or Google Assistant on Androids). Or, they might use VAs through smart speakers at home (like Amazon Echo or Google Home). Voice assistants are the key to smart homes where families can control lights, heat and other devices with simple requests.

How does it work?

VAs use different processes to work. When you give a command, it uses a process called Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR). ASR is a process that uses machine learning or artificial intelligence to turn voice commands into text.

Once the voice command becomes text, the voice assistant tries to make sense of the text command. It does this using something called Natural Language Processing (NLP). NLP follows rules of human language to make sense of commands.

An infographic showing how voice assistant technology works.

Next, the voice assistant technology identifies the meaning behind the command. It then uses its knowledge base to find the right response. After the technology finds a suitable response, it answers by turning a text response back into a speech response.

Of course, it does this all in a near-instant for most commands. As such, we can maybe understand why some responses are not always accurate.

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How do children use voice assistants?

In 2018, 94% of children in a US study had already used some form of voice assistant technology.

The study, co-authored by Professor Svetlana Yarosh, also found that 96% of parents used some form of voice assistant. However, parents were more likely to use the technology infrequently. Children, on the other hand, said they used VAs often. When asked how frequently they used the technology, children most commonly reported “multiple times per day.”

A 2019 Childwise report also found that 1 in 4 children already lived in a household with a voice assistant. With a VA in the home, access to the technology increased.

These numbers have likely increased in recent years.

Dr. Yarosh says children tend to use voice assistants in playful ways or to complete certain tasks. For example, a child might ask Alexa to say funny words or use the device to turn lights on or off. Additionally, Yarosh says VAs can support children’s “random curiosity” about their world.

Stats from research

Our tracker survey found that 49% of children use smart speakers at home.

According to Childwise, 35% of 5-18-year-olds have their own smart speaker.

Research from TalkTalk found that two-thirds of parents use voice assistants to help their children with homework.

In our 2020 report, 62% of families said they owned a device with voice assistant technology.

In that same report, 66% of teens said they used voice assistant technology every day.

Additionally, 53% of teens said they used voice assistants to search for information.

The future of voice assistants

Voice assistant usage has increased in recent years. And with advancements in AI, there are many possibilities for the future of voice assistant technology.

Voice assistants can listen to commands, answer questions and control other smart devices in your home. Already a reasonably advanced piece of technology, it will continue to develop over the next few years.

Dr. Yarosh predicts a greater use of generative AI with these voice assistants. As they currently work, a user asks a question and receives a response. However, unlike tools like ChatGPT, voice assistants cannot currently understand context across multiple exchanges, learn from previous interactions or understand complex commands or questions.

Amazon is already developing generative AI integrations into their Echo devices. In fact, the company says its Echo sensors will also be able to process non-verbal cues in conversations.

Arjun Venkataswamy, Senior Product Manager for Alexa Kids at Amazon highlights children’s enjoyment of AI assistants. He says that as voice assistants become “more conversational and capable, they’ll also become more useful and engaging for kids to use.”

Google also announced Assistant with Bard in October 2023 that will support the existing Google Assistant functions. The goal is to help users have more personalised and responsive experiences.

Other VA tech companies will probably find other ways to use generative AI too.

Living the future

In 2020, we released our report, Living the future: The technological family and the connected home. Professor Lynne Hall from the University of Sunderland outlined what the connected home would look like. Here are 5 predictions made about voice assistants.

Blurring the lines between VAs and home

More smart homes

Voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant can now run the home as well. With the right hardware, you can control lights, heating and even blinds by commanding the VA.

Additionally, these voice assistants can organise your day, entertain the family and support children’s endless curiosity.

These predictions, made in 2020, are certainly true now. The number of smart homes will likely increase in the next few years, with VAs playing an important role.

More spending with the use of voice assistants

Buying with VAs

Voice commerce is when users search for and buy items via voice command.  2022 research found that 37% of UK users bought something online using voice search, which increased from previous years.

The number will likely continue to increase, especially with easy connections to e-commerce platforms.

VAs marketed towards children

Targeted marketing

The number of smart toys that can connect to voice assistants will likely increase, especially with developments in AI.

Benefits, risks and safety tips

As new technology continues to develop, parents will need to help children navigate risks so they can benefit most.

Like other types of tech, voice assistants can offer children both benefits and risks. The Online Safety Act will place accountability on internet platforms, addressing VAs as a part of search services. But there are still other risks to consider that might fall outside the Act.

How voice assistants benefit children

Arjun from Amazon, says that virtual assistants can provide “on-demand support to help kids explore their curiosity and clarify concepts from school.” Amazon’s Alexa, for example, can answer children’s burning questions about nearly every searchable topic. Additionally, Alexa Skills can help children develop their Maths skills, practise their reading and create opportunities for quality family time.

Conversational learning

AI-backed voice assistants, says Arjun, can adjust their responses based on a kids’ follow-up questions, differentiating explanations to create a custom learning experience for every kid.

So, a 7-year-old kid, for example, could share share a fact they learned about the moon, and the voice assistant can respond with a fun fact about the first moon landing mission. It could then ask the child follow-up questions to see what else they know. Essentially, AI-backed voice assistants can build off a kid’s prior knowledge and interests to bring new topics to life with language and examples that meet kids on their level.

Creative collaboration

Arjun also highlights the value of virtual assistants when it comes to supporting kids’ creativity. “It can be hard to be creative starting with a blank slate,” he says. So, virtual assistants can help kids with creative scaffolding, like generating a story prompt for them to build on top of or by taking turns to build up a poem line by line.

The natural, back-and-forth conversation that’s possible with virtual assistants can also help facilitate ‘yes, and’ brainstorming. This style of prompting can help kids to come up with more refined versions of ideas. For example, kids can conversationally share ideas for a new story with a voice assistant and get immediate feedback, like suggestions for new characters or advice to polish the plot.

Setting routines and creating habits

Smart speakers and voice assistant technology can also support children’s routines and habits. For example, you can set routines to ease children into bedtime routines. Or, you can set reminders to take their homework to school in the morning. This can support a range of needs in children of different abilities.

Additionally, says Arjun, the use of AI integration will mean voice assistants will have a greater ability to suggest the right reminders at the right time for kids, during organic interactions like Q&A or playing music. Moreover, these tools can give kids the freedom to get things done on their own terms while giving parents a break from chasing after them to complete different tasks.

Voice assistants and neurodiversity

Voice assistant technology can also support neurodiverse children — such as those on the autism spectrum or with ADHD.

“Kids in general have trouble staying on track,” says Arjun Venkataswamy. Vulnerable children might have particular difficulty in this. However, virtual assistants can proactively remind them of their tasks. This could include what they need to pack for school the next day, what upcoming quizzes need some dedicated study time set aside and when they need to take medications or complete physical therapy.

Settings routines and reminders can support these children’s need for structure. Those with ADHD often need regular reminders to regulate their time. Similarly, those with autism often need routine to help make transitions easier.

Mum, Eileen, shares how Alexa supports her 2 autistic sons.
Display video transcript
I'm a little too big for that one.
Well, Charlie's bigger than you, so.
Yeah, well Charlie likes that one more than him, so push me.
Raising two autistic children brings a lot of challenges and as a mom,
it's heartbreaking when you can't really understand what your son wants.
My name is Eileen and these are my boys, Charlie and Jude,
and this is the story of Alexa bringing joy to my two autistic sons.
Charlie is nine and he's still nonverbal.
It's hard to know what he actually wants.
It's important to stimulate Charlie's senses so I got the idea to hook up
a lava lamp to Alexa. Alexa, turn on lava lamp.
He will walk over there and just start clapping his hands because he is happy.
In 2021, Jude was also diagnosed with autism,
but his autism is much different than Charlie's.
Alexa, is Pluto called a dwarf planet?
How many pennies are there in the whole world?
I would say Jude is very social, very curious.
Alexa, what's 75 divided by 95?
I don't always have answers to his questions, but thankfully Alexa does.
Approximately 0.7895.
Structure is very important for Jude.
Time for bed. Go brush your teeth.
That's why I got the idea of using Alexa to create a bedtime routine.
Time for pajamas. Do you want to read a book with mommy?
As soon as I set up the routine with Alexa, it helped a lot.
I love spending time with them in their own way,
in the way that makes them happy.
They both bring me a lot of joy.

Potential risks of voice assistant technology

As with any tech, there are potential risks associated with voice assistant technology — particularly children. Additionally, with the developing integration of generative AI, children might face other risks. For VAs in particular, some potential risks include:

  • Collection of children’s data or private information. Many households have voice assistant technology. However, not every one of these households have child-friendly devices or accounts to protect children’s sensitive information.
  • Concerns around children’s development. Some express concern about the impacts of voice assistants on children’s development, but research doesn’t yet support this concern. However, widespread use of voice assistant technology is still new. If there are any negative impacts, we can’t yet see them. Regardless, parents should oversee their children’s use of the tech.
  • Targeted advertising. Many smart home devices that use VA technology learn about its users through the given commands. As such, the devices could suggest items to children as a form of targeted advertising. But there are ways to limit or stop this on most, if not all, devices.

Apple first released Siri in 2011, soon followed by other VAs like Amazon’s Alexa (2014). As such, other risks might come to light as the technology continues to spread and reach more children.

Voice assistants and AI

Additionally, as more companies begin to use generative AI, it introduces other risks. According to Dr. Yarosh, this could include:

  • Greater spreading of misinformation. Unlike text-based AI tools, information provided from a voice assistant isn’t always easy to quickly confirm. It could give false references or resources that children won’t know to check.
  • Sharing inappropriate content with children. Using technology designed for adults increases the chance that a child will encounter unsuitable information. Even with companies setting safety limits, there is still risk of this.
  • Lack of understanding from adults. Many adults caring for children might not fully understand the technology. As such, they might not understand the risk factors or things they can do to keep kids safe.
  • Interfering with children’s skill-building. The ease with which voice assistant technology and AI can provide children answers could impact the development of skills. Would they want to improve a skill if something else could do it for them?

4 voice assistant safety tips

Voice assistant technology can offer children a range of benefits. As it continues to develop, you can make sure they stay safe with the following safety tips.

Know how it works

Explore its privacy and security settings

If your child uses a voice assistant, remember to read up on what data it collects and how. Check whether the device using the technology has settings to protect children. For example, Amazon Kids+ allows parents to set up child accounts that limit the content children can access.

Additionally, look for child-specific options instead of getting the standard ones designed for adults.

Show children how to use voice assistants

Use the technology together

Children learn best from the examples you give them. So, show them how to use the technology in appropriate ways. For example, if they need help spelling a word, they can try it themselves before asking the voice assistant for help. They can then correct their spelling, which is likely to help them remember more for the future.

You can also use the devices for quality family time, games and other activities together. In any case, you can show them positive ways to use this technology.

Set boundaries and limits

Create ground rules for using voice assistants

As well as using the technology in the right ways, encourage children to:

  • double-check the answers that voice assistants give;
  • use smart speakers or other devices during dedicated hours;
  • make use of apps or skills on VA devices that help them build skills;
  • use polite and appropriate language when asking a voice assistant something.

Your family’s own boundaries and limits might include other things based on your needs.

Have regular conversations

Discuss how they use voice assistants

As with any device your child uses, conversations are key to their digital safety.

Ask them about their favourite things to do with the device or what kind of information they ask voice assistants. Is there anything that frustrates them? Have they ever received a strange response? What other ways would they want to use the device?

You can then explore new apps or skills, or stay on top of anything that concerns you to avoid potential harm.

Meet the experts

Get more insight into the expertise of each contributor to this guide.

Arjun Venkataswamy, Senior Product Manager for Alexa Kids at Amazon
Arjun Venkataswamy

Arjun Venkataswamy is a Senior Product Manager for Alexa Kids at Amazon. He has a background in software development and Education.

Learn more:

Headshot of Professor Svetlana Yarosh, expert on human-computer interaction.
Svetlana Yarosh, PhD

Svetlana “Lana” Yarosh is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota. She has a PhD in human-centered computing from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her work focuses on human-computer interaction and human-centred technology.

You can learn more about Dr. Yarosh via the following links:

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