British Columbia

Child's smartphone searches become subject of short film

When Brett Gaylor discovered an archive of every voice search his five-year-old son had made on Google Assistant, it raised some troubling questions about artificial intelligence.

'Why is the sky blue?' and other questions from filmmaker's 5-year-old son found in phone's archive

Victoria filmmaker Brett Gaylor's discovery of an audio archive of his son's voice searches led him to consider who ultimately benefits from the data gathered by increasingly powerful digital assistants. (Darren Pasemko/NFB)

When Brett Gaylor's smartphone broke he made a startling discovery.

The Victoria filmmaker went into Google settings to recover his data and found an audio file containing every voice search made on Google Assistant by his five-year-old son Rowan.

The discovery led to a sobering look at his son's relationship with artificial intelligence — and a short NFB film titled OK Google, animated by Darren Pasemko.

"Basically for about a year he was using it to search for, you know, Paw Patrol, or 'Why is the sky blue?,' or 'What is flying?' or 'What is gymnastics?'" Gaylor told All Points West host Jason D'Souza.

After some frustrating results with words like Charmander (a Pokemon character), the digital assistant "learned" to understand and gave better answers to the boy.

The record of searches provided "this amazing window into Rowan's life," Gaylor said.

However, it also raised troubling questions for the father.

An unbalanced relationship

"I think we all have this feeling that there's an unbalanced relationship between what these companies know about us and what we know about what they're doing with that data," he said.

"We don't know in the future what these data sets are going to be used for."

Gaylor says he and his partner no longer allow Rowan to use Google Assistant voice searches.

He hopes people who watch the film will think about who really benefits from searches and data from digital assistants — not just on phones but also newer products such as Amazon's Alexa and Google Home.

"Before you think about turning that on, think about what's going to happen to this data in 10 years time, or when I'm not around anymore," he said.