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Children are curious and prolific question-askers. They are known to ask factual and causal questions about the world around them when they perceive a gap in their understanding (e.g., Callanan & Oakes, 1992; Chouinard, Harris & Maratzos, 2007; Tizard & Hughes, 1984). The proliferation of artificial intelligence-driven, voice-based digital assistants such as Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, and the Google Assistant make it possible for children to press a button, or use a “wake word”, and simply ask a question, thus making Internet searches accessible to those who can speak but have not yet fully developed spelling and typing skills. Smart speakers housing such digital assistants are marketed to families, with children featured in television commercials asking homework questions and resolving disputes with siblings.
The present study (in progress) considers how parents and children who have not yet had a smart speaker at home find answers to children’s questions and how the availability of a newly placed smart speaker impacts children’s question-asking behavior. Additionally, we study how children conceive of digital assistants after two weeks of availability. Children aged 5 to 8 years, along with a parent, are interviewed at home about their current interests, technology use, questions asked and strategies for finding answers. Parents also complete a questionnaire about their family’s technology use, demographics and child personality measures (curiosity, shyness and impulsivity). At the end of the visit, a smart speaker (Google Home Mini) is installed in the home, with the understanding that researchers will have access to its usage log containing recordings and transcripts of all interactions. At the end of two weeks, the parent and child pair are visited once again to discuss their impressions of the smart speaker, how the parents perceive their children’s interactions and question asking behavior towards the device and how children understand the digital assistant.
Preliminary results (n=12 with a goal of 40) show that children ask questions meant to test the device (i.e., questions they already know the answers to), personal questions (e.g., asking the speaker who its best friend is), factual questions (e.g., about animals, geography and famous people) and questions about fantasy topics (e.g., unicorns, dragons, super heroes). Younger children (ages 5 and 6) are more likely than older ones to attempt personal interactions (e.g. saying hello and goodbye, introducing themselves and family members to the speaker). Parents have not reported any observed changes in children’s question-asking behavior after the introduction of the smart speakers in their homes. Most children have said they think the smart speaker is alive, because it can talk. Since no limitations were placed on the use participants could make of the device, children also use the speaker to play music, listen to stories and engage with applications such as the weather forecast and trivia games. Future analysis will include correlations between the nature and topic of questions addressed to the smart speaker and prior home technology use, child personality measures and demographic information.