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Commentary Smart Home

Google Home doesn't understand children (my children)

Commentary: The Google Home does an incredible job of listening to "human beings," but what about children? Specifically *my* children?

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The Google Home Mini.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Whenever I catch myself in the most modern of existential crises -- worrying about my place as a replaceable lump of flesh in a world where robots are writing news stories -- I think of Google Home and breathe a sigh of relief.

I think about my recently acquired Google Home Mini. About its insides whirring and spluttering as my 5-year-old approaches.

"Hey Google," gargles my son, like a belligerent drunk, mouth stuffed full of porridge.

"Do you know about ninjas?"

Four dots. Vibrating ellipses. The silent sound of Google Assistant's algorithms collapsing under the pressure.

("Oh god oh god oh god the human child is here. I do not understand the human child. What is the human child trying to say to me. Help oh dear God help.")

"Sorry," laughs the Google Home awkwardly, shaking off the embarrassment of not knowing about ninjas. "I can't help."

A final, embarrassed refrain.

"But I'm always learning."

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Chris Monroe/CNET

Hi my name is Mark Serrels, and I do know about ninjas. I especially know about "Lego Ninjago," the TV show my son is obsessed with.

I know that Lloyd is the Green Ninja (the best one apparently) and the cursed son of Lord Garmadon, Ninjago's resident ultimate bad guy. I also know that Lloyd -- the Green Ninja -- has a dragon. I know this because my son is obsessed with the TV show Ninjago and its corresponding Lego sets. I know this because I once spent two hours building an expensive, gigantor Lego dragon while my son taunted me on the sidelines.

"Daddy, you're taking a long time.

"Elijah's daddy was much faster than you."

Son, you think you're better than me? 30 minutes ago you needed me to wipe your ass after squeezing out some weird coloured poop, cut me some slack here.

So yes, to recap: Google does not know about ninjas. 

Correction: Google does know about ninjas, but only if you ask it in a polite, adult manner. Or rather, Google might know about ninjas, but Google does not know about children. At the least, it's not that good at communicating with them. 

Sometimes the Google Home's confusion is perfectly understandable.

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When my 2-year-old grabs a stool, drags it over to my standing desk, and splutters "HELLO GOOGLE MOANA," there's no possible way I'd expect any technological device (or actual human being) to understand that my son -- at this precise moment -- very much wants to hear one specific track on the "Moana" soundtrack and have that song repeated ad infinitum until the inevitable heat death of the universe.

No problemo, Google. I don't expect you to understand my dribbling 2-year-old. But maybe Google should know about ninjas? Maybe it would be cool if Google Home was better at communicating with kids about ninjas? (And possibly other things besides ninjas, but mainly ninjas.)

In a sense, it feels strange complaining about the Google Home -- or complaining about the Google Home specifically. I have no idea if the Amazon Echos of the world, which only very recently launched in Australia, have the same issue. Regardless, voice recognition has come a long way in such a short space of time. I'm Scottish, overwhelmingly Scottish. When I first tried Siri, smoke practically poured out the back of the iPhone. Microsoft's Kinect was pretty much unusable for me until I did my best Claire Foy impression ("One would like to play Halo 5, thank you"). 

Actually, now that I think about it, the Google Home was one of the first devices that did a half-decent job of understanding me when I decided to go full "Trainspotting." And Google has done a decent job of providing a series of interesting games for kids, with dozens of quizzes available through Google Assistant. Only problem: They're clearly designed for an idealised version of children, the kind of child who only exists in the imagination of Google engineers who don't actually have kids.

It's for children who enjoy homework. Children hungry for knowledge, children who care about planets and want to practice maths in their spare time.

In short, kids who grow up and end up working at Google.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

What about the meathead children? Won't somebody think of the meathead children? The kids who don't want to do their homework, who don't want to take part in a freakish AI-sanctioned spelling bee.

What about the kids who just want to know about ninjas?

Maybe it's just the voice. Maybe it's the way my son's words collapse into one another like a slow-motion car crash. Maybe it's the bizarre syntax ("Hey Google, what noise does a lion sound like?"). But perhaps the next generation of voice recognition software could be a bit more friendly to people like my son, and young children in general. I think that would be nice.

Because Google, my son really, really wants to know about ninjas.

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