Picture, picture, smile for the picture
Pose with your brother, won’t you be a good sister?
Everyone thinks that we’re perfect
Please don’t let them look through the curtains.
In her debut single “Dollhouse” last year, Generation Z artist and idol Melaine Martinez plays a little girl’s doll who ends every chilling refrain with: “I see things that nobody else sees”. The mood in Martinez’ music videos is as eerie as a Tim Burton masterpiece, displaying her uncanny ability to put a creepy, yet quite enjoyable spin on childhood memorabilia such as dolls, birthday parties and carousels.
It turns out that Martinez Dollhouse video and lyrics could be setting the stage for a new crop of toys. With Mattel’s “Hello Barbie”, the 50+ year fashion doll is now evolving from being inanimate plastic to becoming a miniaturized humanoid, albeit still with humanly impossible waist measurements.
Hello Barbie’s interior is developed by a San Fransisco based company called Toy Talk. The $75 doll is equipped with a mic, voice recognition software and algorithms that can extract meanings and form cohesive responses to everything the child is saying. The conversations are recorded and uploaded via wifi networks to a server, which parents can listen to and delete.
The A.I. toy is not without objections. Worries ranging from robotized childhoods to privacy issues will have skeptics send these playthings to the island of unwanted toys for years.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities AI in toys represent?
Privacy: Mattel operates with a parental consent contract which allows the parents to delete toy-child conversations uploaded to their servers. But Josh Golin, executive director for The Center for Commercial Free Childhood, claims that as much time children spend on talking to their dolls there is no way the company can ensure all of the data is being deleted. It’s easy to argue that in the era of internet connected things these toys represent just one more addition to the wide spectrum of smart gadgets threatening to end privacy as we know it. But wouldn’t a toy who provides companionship manage to pry a little deeper than a washer or a thermostat? Is there any other device that can access deeper psychological layers of a child than pseudo-animate doll confidante? And what happens to the digital footprint?
Doubling as parental monitoring system, Hello Barbie is essentially becoming the world’s most interactive baby monitor. The AI toys’ recorded data can be helpful for discovering problems the child might be experiencing, and accommodate positive interventions of issues that might otherwise go overlooked. But they also begets the question whether a doll confidante programmed to snitch on her master can be considered ethical. What happens to an abused child when she confides in her doll her abusive father’s violations? What happens to the small secrets that are so important to children and so damaging to their self-esteem when discovered by a prying adult?
Social Development: What happens when a child receives most of its interaction from a robot? Will the child learn how to deal with conflicts and other human foibles? Or is this even a relevant question? After all, few people sacrificed human interaction when digital assistants moved into their phones. But maybe we’re frogs not realizing we’re steaming in water that are gradually getting hotter? MIT’s researcher on robotic and human relationship, Sherry Turkle says we’re now entering a ‘robotic moment’. Not because we have built robots worthy of our company but because we are ready for theirs.” When polling a teenage boy if he would confide in his father or a robot to discuss relationship issues back in 1983 the respondent chose his father. When she asked the same question to a same aged boy in 25 years later he answered he would prefer the robot. Is there a generational component to the willingness to let artificial companions supplant rather than supplement human contact?
Learning: Cognitoys robotic dinosaur is based on IBM Watson’s platform and can adjust interaction level to the developmental and academic level of the child. The Baby Einsteins of the 2000s have finally met their match. Except Baby Einstein was never really that effective because small children learn mainly from interaction, not instruction. Over the past decade or so ideas in early childhood development have shifted from a focus on direction-based learning to stimulating children’s natural curiosity. This trends has been supported with a growing number of studies that cast doubt on the effectiveness of early academics. In the more interactive child-initiated learning paradigm interactive toys are better choices than passive toys. The latest A.I. based learning concept I heard about does not actually teach the child, but plays “dumb” to let the child teach itself because people learn best by teaching others. Moreover, anecdotal observations have suggested that autistic children learn to improve their social skills from Siri because the virtual assistant is perceived as a safer partner for testing social skills than another human. Another concept in the wings is a toy that can help psychiatrists diagnose autism. In this latter case the objective is not the child’s own learning, but the medical community learning enough about a patient to set a diagnosis.
Jonathan Mugan is working in this space and his book The Curiosity Cycle is a must-read for parents who are foresighted enough to envision a future where their children will co-exist with smart machines.
So how intelligent are really these intelligent toys?
Watching a demo of Hello Barbie on YouTube I noticed she stumbled into non-sensical fallacies which to me seems to suggest that her data mining capabilities are limited. And she is definitely a far shot from the “strong” A.I. Elon Musk, Nick Bostrom and Stephen Hawking warn us. Nor will an artificially intelligent Transformer toy convert into a mini-version of a DARPA-style killing robot any time soon.
Data, Baby! Baby-Data
But there are other aspects that are troubling. And I truly think the ethical issues worth pondering at the moment are the data extracting abilities these devices have.
The type of information exchange toys of the Hello Barbie type can collect is logically similar to social media. But precisely because social media with extensive audiences are so profitable there are many reasons for why struggling brick-and-mortar companies may want to consider going down this path. Another profound difference is that SoMe is for age 13+ and opt-in, but kids playing with AI toys are under 13 and do not deliberately opt to share their innermost thoughts with Mattel.
The current generation of AI toys is probably not ‘there yet’, and will maybe never be. But I believe it represents a chasm of blue pill vs. red pill scenario types where the very youngest generation will be haunted by the personal data collected during their childhood through years of their parents’ overactive social sharing habits, e-learning scorecards, medical records (depending on HIPAA-type regulations), wearables and now their toys. This problematique cannot be shuffled into a “kids don’t care about privacy anymore, anyway” paradigm because too many signs show this is not true. Just continue to listen to the tunes of Generation Z.
Hey girl, open your walls, play with your dolls
We’ll be a perfect family…