The flap over Talking Angela the chatbot app

If you’re a parent, you know how little kids often want to be like their older sibs and other “big kids” they look up to. And that goes for technology too, of course. Enter Talking Angela, an iPhone and Android app designed for teens (and the teenager in all of us) but not for little kids. Though I can see why little ones would find Angela the talking cat fascinating.

Yesterday morning I found myself having two conversations about “Angela,” one with a Net safety expert in the UK via Skype and the other with one in Mexico via email. They had both gotten calls from parents about a hoax about Talking Angela that had been circulating on Facebook and in the news media in their respective countries – a hoax that associated the app with a “pedophile ring” but that has also been “fully repudiated,” CNET reports. Yet another reminder of the ever-increasing importance of media literacy.

57 million+ downloads so far

Angela is an “artificial intelligence chatbot” app that has been downloaded 57 million times since its release a little over a year ago, according to CNET. It was created by award-winning programmers Bruce and Sue Wilcox, whose bots “are the only ones to have qualified for the [World Turing Test] competition’s finals each of the last four years,” CNET adds. According to The Guardian, the Angela app “is part of a wider series of apps called Talking Tom and Friends [a talking dog, parrot and giraffe as well as cats], which have been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times since 2010, and are currently being used by 230m people every month – lots of children, but also lots of adults. They’ve spawned a series of popular YouTube videos in partnership with Disney, as well as a range of physical toys. Outfit7 is a well-known apps company, not a shadowy network of child-catchers….”

I mentioned above that Talking Angela wasn’t designed for children. “Angela successfully captures the teen personality,” its developer Bruce Wilcox told CNET. “For Angela it is all about her feelings. And Angela is selfish at times. And not only can she be rude but she can detect you being rude and react appropriately…. She’s strictly a conversation agent, residing locally on the phone.” That last point is important because Talking Angela is not a social app – the conversation is just between the user and the cat on his or her phone. It doesn’t go anywhere else. No one else can participate or take over (unless a couple of buddies are talking with the character together on the same phone in the same room). Some parents are still nervous about what Angela asks, and the CNET reporter asked Wilcox about that. “Angela asks questions like what is your name (to address you) and what is your age (to keep children away from certain topics).” I mentioned above that Talking Angela wasn’t designed for children. “Angela successfully captures the teen personality,” its developer Bruce Wilcox told CNET. “For Angela it is all about her feelings. And Angela is selfish at times. And not only can she be rude but she can detect you being rude and react appropriately…. She’s strictly a conversation agent, residing locally on the phone.” That last point is important because Talking Angela is not a social app – the conversation is just between the user and the cat on his or her phone. It doesn’t go anywhere else. No one else can participate or take over (unless a couple of buddies are talking with the character together on the same phone in the same room). Some parents are still nervous about what Angela asks, and the CNET reporter asked Wilcox about that. “Angela asks questions like what is your name (to address you) and what is your age (to keep children away from certain topics).” So having Angela ask a user his or her age is the chatbot version of the age-gating Web sites have to do to comply with COPPA, the US children’s privacy law.

Lame Safety Mode

If you have a child who’s intrigued with the app and has downloaded it, get him or her to show you what it’s like to converse with Angela and see if you’re comfortable with how it goes. If you’re not but aren’t quite ready to delete the app altogether, there is a “Child Mode” setting that can be turned on. It might work with really little kids – 4 and under – but otherwise it’s really easy for a kid to turn off. S/he can just “toggle it on or off by tapping on the little smiley face at the top right of the screen,” The Guardian reports.

I was a little concerned about what the company does with information a child might tell Angela which she “remembers” for future conversation. Does she share it with advertisers? Only in aggregate (not individuals’ personal information), but parents will want to be sure the ads are ok for their kids. And here’s the app company’s privacy policy for further info. Please see the thorough Guardian article for a few other things to be aware of. And check out Wilcox’s interesting answer to CNET’s question about the challenges of creating artificial intelligence characters for kids – e.g., having to “think like a child and write for a child. The child’s sense of humor is different from ours, and they love repetition.”

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