Technology

Amazon Alexa skirts around children's questions about sensitive topics

The voice-powered digital assistant provides child-friendly responses to questions about sex and whether Santa is real.

Amazon’s Alexa voice-powered digital assistant can circumvent sensitive issues asked by children, the company has confirmed.

Owners of the retail giant’s popular Echo smart speaker range can activate a FreeTime feature, which will respond with little detail to questions such as where babies come from and whether Santa is real.

The feature, only available in the US at present, was developed in collaboration with child psychologists in a bid to protect children from potentially upsetting answers, that parents may prefer to word themselves.

“Just like humans, Alexa’s core personality and intelligence remains the same when interacting with kids; however, Alexa may adjust to respond and offer information in a tailored, kid-friendly way,” Amazon said.

Amazon Echo
The feature is only available in the US at present (David Parry/PA)

“Sensitive topics are one of the areas where – at times – Alexa will tailor her response to be more empathetic, or simply direct the child to a parent or trusted grown-up.

“Alexa isn’t intended to be a replacement parent or caregiver, so we believe it’s important we treat these answers with empathy and point the child to a trusted adult when applicable.”

FreeTime arrived on Alexa in the US back in May, offering a range of extra parental controls, including time limits to stop children using the Echo when it’s bedtime and the ability to block explicit songs from playing.

In the UK, questions such as how babies are made is responded with, “Babies are made through the process of reproduction”.

Asking whether Santa is real prompts Alexa to say: “I’ve heard Father Christmas is wonderful.

“I’ve never met him, but if I do I’ll tell you.”

Alexa has proven a huge hit for the booming online retailer, whose recent net quarterly sales topped £40.3 billion.

“We want customers to be able to use Alexa wherever they are,” said Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos.

“There are now tens of thousands of developers across more than 150 countries building new devices using the Alexa Voice Service, and the number of Alexa-enabled devices has more than tripled in the past year.”

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