CES Watch: Are Voice Assistants Turning Into Digital Nannies?


Colgate-Palmolive Alexa water conservation skill

Amazon’s Alexa is picking up new skills at a fast pace as millions of households buy robotic voice assistants for everything from turning lights on and off, ordering pizza and finding movie times to checking the temperature or the time.

Along with Alexa, Google Home, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana these AI-powered devices are gathering momentum as personal assistants to change human behavior and even our planet. A bigger question ahead of CES 2018, when the next generation of voice-controlled Internet of Things devices will be revealed, is to what extent we should invite digital devices into the home lest they reprogram us.

To be sure, we look to digital assistants to coach us into becoming better people: more efficient, on top of things, smarter and healthier. Case in point: Colgate, the global leader in oral care, has produced a water conservation skill for Alexa. Released this week as an extension of its #EveryDropCounts campaign, the Save Water by Colgate skill is activated by saying, “Alexa, open Save Water by Colgate.”

While you brush your teeth—and hopefully turn off the faucet while you do so—you can listen to Alexa narrate water conservation facts and tips, and activate the option for Alexa to play the sound of running water to “replace” the sound of actual water for two minutes, the dentist-recommended amount of time to properly brush teeth.

It’s hard to argue with the environmental reasoning underpinning Colgate’s ongoing #EveryDropCounts campaign, which seeks to inspire change and more conscious behavior as consumers.

“Colgate continues to commit resources to drive sustainability innovation as it relates to water conservation,” stated Lori Michelin, VP sustainability & environmental health and safety at Colgate-Palmolive. “Knowing that the next generation is more digitally connected than ever, we’re exploring new and engaging channels to reach our consumers with a simple message that can make an incredible impact.”

An estimated 42% percent of adults in the U.S. leave the water running while they brush, wasting up to four gallons of potable drinking water—as Olympian Michael Phelps pointed out in a recent PSA for Colgate.

With Colgate products in two-thirds of households worldwide, Save Water by Colgate is a significant investment by a global CPG powerhouse to effect positive change at a very personal level in an attempt to encourage positive skills in people; the younger, the better.

While you might argue that turning off the faucet and saving water while brushing teeth is a lesson that parents and guardians should impart, the impact of digital voice assistants turning into digital nannies and authority figures in the home is just beginning to be examined for what it means for younger, more impressionable minds.

And on top of that, branded “skills” and digital content layers another level of concern for some—do you want your kids to learn good toothbrushing habits from you or Colgate, via a digital sentry embedded in the home?

“How (kids) react and treat this nonhuman entity is, to me, the biggest question,” said Sandra Calvert, a Georgetown University psychologist and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center. “And how does that subsequently affect family dynamics and social interactions with other people?”

With 25 million voice assistants projected to sell this year alone, an increase from 1.7 million in 2015, those ramifications start as early as the diaper crowd, such as Mattel’s Aristotle device.

While some may worry about privacy and the presence of a digital nanny vs. a digital coach, lecturing adults and children to improve our ways (or just turn off the faucet), what’s clear is that there will be many more “skills”—branded or not—being delivered by digital voices in our homes. And consumers have a voice in how much say they have in our lives.