Lower Your Voice; the Toys Might Be Listening by Dan Tynan
Last week, as I roamed the aisles at the international Toy Fair in New York City, I was struck by how many toys I played with as a kid are still around: familiar card games, puzzles, stuffed animals, trains, and even green plastic army men (although some of them are now doing yoga). It was like stepping into a time machine.
But this time machine also goes into the future. At the fair I saw toys that connect directly to the Internet, interact with kids in real time, record what they say, and adapt to their interests. The potential here is fantastic: Imagine toys that teach math fundamentals, improve your kids’ spelling, or prepare them for tests while they think they’re playing.
But there’s also potential for abuse. Toymakers could use these things to conduct market research, advertise new products directly to kids, or build profiles of their interests from an early age.
Should you worry about this? Today, no. Tomorrow… maybe. In either case, you’ll need to start paying closer attention to the data your child’s toys are collecting and what they plan to do with it.
It’s elemental, Watson
I saw early versions of two connected toys at the show. One is from a fledgling startup; the other is from Mattel. Both are building toys that connect to the cloud to pull down information based on stuff your kids say.
First, there’s Elemental Path’s CogniToys Green Dinosaur, currently in Kickstarter mode. Kids ages 4 to 7 talk to it by pressing a button on its belly. They ask it questions; the toy connects to the Net via your Wi-Fi network, finds answers, and responds in a gravelly voice. It also asks your kids questions and keeps track of their answers.
In many ways the $100 CogniToy is similar to artificial intelligence-based lookup services like Apple’s Siri, Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Amazon Echo. It uses natural-language processing to understand what someone is asking, searches online databases for an answer, then recites the answer using text-to-speech software.
There are a few things that make the CogniToy different. One is that it uses IBM’s Watson technology to search databases and deliver answers. It’s the same cognitive computing system that defeated the best Jeopardy! players on the planet a few years ago. Another is that, unlike concierge services like Siri, this toy actively seeks information about the user, mostly in the form of simple math and language quizzes. And it is designed to evolve over time; once your child masters one set of skills, the questions get harder.
The other big difference — and a relief for parents — is that, also unlike Siri or Google Now or Echo in certain modes, the dino isn’t always listening. Kids have to press a button for it to hear them. The CogniToy also isn’t designed to store kids’ audio recordings. Instead, it uses a speech recognition engine developed by Elemental Path to figure out what the kids are saying, translates it to text, sends that text to IBM’s Watson cloud to search for answers, then transmits relevant responses back down the line, which are converted into speech by the toy.
Benini says the data is anonymized and encrypted on Elemental Path’s servers, and that only parents can view what their kids have said.
Parental controls inside the app will let you tell the toy how to respond to specific questions, such as “Where do babies come from?” says Benini. “You can tell the toy to gracefully change the topic or say, ‘Ask your mama,’” he adds.
Then there’s the much blonder Hello Barbie. This doll is similar in a lot of ways to the dinosaur, though the technology is somewhat less sophisticated on the back end (and her hair is more fabulous). Mattel was demonstrating a prototype of the $75 doll in its booth at the fair; the actual product is slated to appear next fall.
Like the dino, Barbie connects via Wi-Fi and uses speech recognition technology to figure out what your kids are saying. If you tell her your name or your favorite food, she will remember it later. But Barbie isn’t searching the Internet for answers or generating responses on the fly; she’s merely pulling from a database of some 10,000 canned responses, written by a team at Mattel, which will be continually updated over time.
Mattel also plans to offer a parental portal where you can listen to recordings of your kid’s conversations with the doll, delete them, or share them with others. The technology is built by ToyTalk, maker of the popular Winston Show and SpeakaZoo apps, which employ the same audio-recording features and offer a similar portal.
The parents’ portal for Winston Show lets you hear each conversation your child has with the app, then share them with the world or delete them.
But other toymakers might not be so strict. And it’s perfectly legal to collect kids’ information and use it to sell more products, provided you comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Under COPPA, websites and apps must obtain parental consent before collecting personal information — including voice recordings — from kids 12 or younger. (Though that won’t stop millions of 11-year-olds from lying about their age to, say, create a Facebook account.) Companies that violate COPPA could face hefty fines from the FTC.
But nothing in COPPA prevents a toymaker from collecting information from your child and using it for marketing purposes after parents have given their consent, says attorney Shai Samet, founder and president of the kidSafe Seal Program, a private FTC-approved firm that audits children’s products to ensure compliance with COPPA.