Alexa Introduces Voice Profiles for Kids and New AI Reading Tutor
Amazon has augmented Alexa’s voice profile feature with a version aimed specifically at children. Parents and guardians can use the new Alexa Voice Profiles for Kids tool to enable a personalized experience for up to four children per account. The profiles have debuted alongside Reading Sidekick, a new AI-powered tutor to encourage and help children become literate.
Reading Sidekick is the central part of the kid-focused profiles at the moment. Designed for those between the ages of six and nine, Reading Sidekick uses Alexa to help teach a kid to read any of the several hundred titles in its library of supported books, both in digital and physical form. It just required an Echo smart speaker or smart display and an Amazon Kids+ subscription. Amazon Kids+ is what Amazon renamed FreeTime and FreeTime Unlimited and offers exclusive Alexa Skills and other content for $3 a month for Prime members and $5 a month for non-prime members. When a child says, “Alexa, let’s read,” the voice assistant asks what book they want to read and how much they want to read, with choices of taking turns, a little, or a lot. Taking turns means Alexa and the child will trade reading sections, while a little or a lot shifts the ratio one way or the other. Regardless, Alexa will praise their success and even prompt them with the next word if they get stuck.
“With the arrival of Reading Sidekick, we are hopeful we can make reading fun for millions of kids to set them up for a lifetime of learning and a love of reading,” Alexa Education and Learning head Marissa Mierow said. “Alexa provides a welcoming, no-judgment zone and is always ready to help and to read.”
Alexa for Kids
Amazon first debuted voice profiles for Alexa users back in 2017, enabling Alexa to respond differently to the same query based on who is speaking without switching accounts. This made it easier for a family or roommates to share an Alexa device. Third-party developers were given permission to integrate that element into their Alexa skill in 2019, and the voice assistant began applying user contact information to personalize interactions with Alexa last year. The voice recognition feature even expanded to Amazon’s call center platform in December. The voice profiles created for children function largely the same way but with a narrower range of functions.
It would be an impressive feat for Amazon to have Alexa understand children as well as it does adults. The difficulties involved are why children’s speech recognition tech startup SoapBox Labs were formed. SoapBox, which new Voice Activity Detection (VAD) and Custom Wakeword tools in May, builds on a database of thousands of hours of children’s speech and its own deep learning technology to understand the unique patterns and inflections of children’s speech. There’s no denying that there’s a growing demand for kid-focused voice AI, however. Earlier this year, Google released its own reading tutor for kids, but that feature doesn’t have the personalized touch of Amazon’s new profiles. However, it will almost inevitably be included in the cluster of lawsuits Amazon faces over whether Alexa violates children’s privacy. The new features also meant teaching Alexa to understand better how kids speak and the many variations based on location, age, background, and other factors. The microphones in an Echo are also adjusted when the kids’ profile is engaged as they may be farther away or sitting behind a book when using Reading Sidekick.