Google is potentially creating a search engine for toddlers, despite recent privacy scandals.
The tech giant has filed a European patent, entitled Gamifying Voice Search Experience for Children, which gives it exclusive rights to develop the concept.
Aimed at nursery-age youngsters, the prospective product would use a child-friendly bubble-interface to engage with infants.
This would be separate to Google Assistant, which already allows people to conduct voice-activated searches on their devices.
However, education experts have raised concerns over the risk of potential privacy violations, such as those associated with Amazon’s Echo Device, plus the dangers of making children addicted to technology.
The patent filing has been unearthed just weeks after it was determined Google Assistant does give workers access to some audio recordings.
Too much, too young? Google have filed a European patent, entitled Gamifying Voice Search Experience for Children, which gives them exclusive rights to develop the concept (stock)
They fear that it could introduce another function on smartphones, tablet and laptops which effectively allow Silicon Valley to eavesdrop on their conversations.
But the company insists it can ‘transform content searching into a game-like experience that teaches young users how to search for interesting content.’
Documents detailing the patent suggest the platform would specifically target ‘children who cannot yet read words’, so those younger than three years-old.
They could command the search function by bursting on-screen bubbles, which would prompt them to speak about age-related topics, such as animals or games.
These animated bubbles would remain active on the page to show that the device was ‘actively listening’ to the them.
The patent suggests that a child might say ‘Giraffe!’, which would produce pictures or a video on-screen, which they could ‘like’ or ‘dislike’. They would also be encouraged to leave comments.
However, Google have insisted that the concept is still in its embryonic phase – and may not even materialise.
It, along with many other tech companies, files huge amounts of patents every year, but only a portion are full-developed.
Early development: Documents detailing the patent suggest the platform would specifically target ‘children who cannot yet read words’, so those younger than three years-old (stock)
WHY ARE PEOPLE CONCERNED OVER PRIVACY WITH AMAZON’S ALEXA DEVICES?
Amazon devices have previously been activated when they’re not wanted – meaning the devices could be listening.
Millions are reluctant to invite the devices and their powerful microphones into their homes out of concern that their conversations are being heard.
Amazon devices rely on microphones listening out for a key word, which can be triggered by accident and without their owner’s realisation.
The camera on the £119.99 ($129) Echo Spot, which doubles up as a ‘smart alarm’, will also probably be facing directly at the user’s bed.
The device has such sophisticated microphones it can hear people talking from across the room – even if music is playing.
Last month a hack by British security researcher Mark Barnes saw 2015 and 2016 versions of the Echo turned into a live microphone.
Fraudsters could then use this live audio feed to collect sensitive information from the device.
‘We file patent applications on a variety of ideas,’ it said in a statement:
‘Some of those mature into real products, some don’t. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patent applications.’
But some still fear that it could cultivate a tech addiction in youngsters.
Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, told the Evening Standard that such gadgets were ‘feeding an addiction to digital technology which we have in schools — they rely on it a great deal, which takes them away from the printed word in a traditional form of a book’.
The news comes just one week after it was revealed that Google’s sister company launched Pampers ‘smart nappy’ which monitors when babies sleep, eat and need changing amid privacy fears.
Eavesdropping? Education experts have raised concerns over the risk of potential privacy violations, such as those associated with Amazon’s Echo Device, plus the dangers of making children addicted to technology
‘Lumi’ comes with two packs of nappies, two reusable detachable sensors and a WiFi-connected video monitor. The sensors detect any moisture in a child’s nappy and, if stool or urine is found, send a notification automatically to the smartphone app of a parent or carer with the Lumi by Pampers app.
The app can also monitor sleeping patterns, how often parents are feeding their babies and the humidity and temperature of a child’s bedroom. The data can be fed back into a smartphone no matter where in the world the user is, which also raised privacy concerns.
Earlier this month, Google admitted that it gives workers access to some audio recordings from its Google Home and Android smart speakers.
The technology giant said it provides those snippets to language experts who manually review the recordings, studying customers’ speech to improve its voice-activated Google Assistant.
While the company only reviews a relatively small number of audio snippets from users – about 0.2 percent of the recordings are reviewed by Google contractors — the practice has reportedly scraped up some personal information in the process.
The conversations ranged in subject matter, says the outlet. Excerpts included conversations between a parent and their child, arguments, and a professional phone call that reportedly contained private information.
Other more severe instances included a woman who was in ‘definite distress’ and private queries like men using their smart hub to search for porn.
In a statement, the company admitted that a small number of anonymous recordings were transcribed by its experts, and revealed that an investigation had been launched after some Dutch audio data had been leaked.
‘We partner with language experts around the world to improve speech technology by transcribing a small set of queries – this work is critical to developing technology that powers products like the Google Assistant,’ Google said in a statement.
‘We just learned that one of these reviewers has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data.’
WHAT ARE SOME OF GOOGLE’S PAST CONTROVERSIES?
March 2019: Google refused to scrap a Saudi government app which lets men track and control women.
The tech giant says that software allowing men to keep tabs on women meets all of its terms and conditions.
October 2018: A software bug in Google+ meant that the personal information of ‘hundreds of thousands’ of users was exposed. The issue reportedly affected users on the site between 2015 and March 2018.
The bug allowed app developers to access information like names, email addresses, occupation, gender and more.
Google announced it would be shutting down the Google+ social network permanently, partly as a result of the bug.
It also announced other security features that meant apps would be required to inform users what data they will have access to. Users have to provide ‘explicit permission’ in order for them to gain access to it.
August 2018: A new investigation led by the Associated Press found that some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking – even when Location History has been paused.
The investigation found that the following functions were enabled by default:
- The Maps app storing a snapshot of where the user is when it is open
- Automatic weather updates on Android phones pinpointing to where the user is each time the forecast is refreshed
- Simple searchers, such as ‘chocolate chip cookies,’ or ‘kids science kits,’ tagging the user’s precise latitude and longitude – accurate to the square foot – and saving it to the Google account
This information was all logged as part of the ‘Web and App Activity feature, which does not specifically reference location information in its description.
July 2018: The EU fined Google $5 Billion in for shutting-out competitors by forcing major phone manufacturers including South Korea’s Samsung and China’s Huawei to pre-install its search engine and Google Chrome browser by default.
July 2018: The Wall Street Journal revealed that data privacy practices of Gmail means that it was common for third-party developers to read the contents of users’ Gmail messages.