Amazon Takes on AI Rivals With Child-Friendly Alexa Features

As the holiday shopping season ramps up, Amazon is looking to get an edge over its competition in the consumer AI space by adding new generative AI features to Alexa, its cross-platform, cross-device digital assistant. The ecommerce and tech giant announced Explore with Alexa on Wednesday, which is aimed specifically at kids.

Explore with Alexa is designed to give more personalized and age-appropriate responses to questions from children. The company told Decrypt that it would be included with the Amazon Kids+ monthly subscription and be accessible on any Amazon Echo device with a child profile.

When kids ask Alexa about animals and nature, Amazon said the new Explore with Alexa will respond with fun facts and trivia questions. These responses are adapted from “trusted sources” like the World Wildlife Fund and A-Z Animals, according to the company.

“Our LLM stack makes it possible to adapt this vetted content into natural, kid-friendly responses with age-appropriate vocabulary,” said Arjun Venkataswamy, Senior Product Manager of Alexa Kids. “We first started with trivia questions because, aside from them being fun, they take advantage of a well-researched educational technique called ‘activating prior knowledge.’”

According to Amazon, the updated Alexa will let kids learn on demand by saying Alexa’s wake-up command and asking a question. The service will also ask prompting questions designed to keep kids engaged and interested in exploring a topic more deeply.

“Explore with Alexa includes the same accessibility focus and features as Alexa overall,” Venkataswamy said. “As part of the hybrid human and AI evaluation process, we review all Explore with Alexa content to ensure that it’s inclusive for kids with a wide range of backgrounds.”

Like Google and Microsoft, Amazon has invested heavily in generative AI technology, including a $4 billion investment in OpenAI rival Anthropic, creator of Claude AI. In September, the e-commerce giant unveiled a host of new AI-powered products, including additions to its line of smart home products.

Adapting generative AI to kids has been a touchy subject, however, and watchdog groups and policymakers are wary of any technology that’s accessible to minors. On Tuesday, 34 states filed a lawsuit against Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta on claims that it uses its algorithms to manipulate children into spending more time on the platforms and contribute to mental health issues in teenagers.

“Building on our long-term commitment to preserve the trust of our customers and their families, Explore with Alexa puts trust and safety at the forefront,” Venkataswamy said. “We are utilizing both content guardrails: starting with safe, objective topics like animals, adapting content from trusted sources, and utilizing a mix of human and AI review.”

Even as AI developers look to protect kids online, the question of how AI model data is collected, where it is stored, and who has access to it remains a top concern. Tech companies like Apple and Samsung, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Space Force have banned or restricted employees and servicemembers from using ChatGPT for fear of data leaks and loss of intellectual property.

Last month, reports suggested that Amazon trains its AI models on customer conversations, rekindling fears from 2019 when it was reported that Amazon enlisted human contractors to listen to Alexa recordings. An Amazon spokesperson clarified to Decrypt that customers can opt out of sharing their data with the company.

“[Amazon] has always believed that training Alexa with real-world requests is essential to delivering an experience to customers that’s accurate and personalized and constantly getting better,” the spokesperson said. “But in tandem, we give customers control over whether their Alexa voice recordings are used to improve the service, and we always honor our customer preferences when we train our models.”

Edited by Ryan Ozawa.

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