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When children talk to toys, some are talking back

Nova Safo Oct 29, 2015
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This holiday season, new toys are hitting the market that are smarter than ever: toys that talk with kids, connect to the cloud, even employ artificial intelligence.

Mattel’s new “Hello Barbie” doll is the most visible example of this trend and the most controversial one, too. It hits stores in late November. The toy giant demonstrated the doll at the New York Toy Fair earlier this year.

The technology powering Hello Barbie’s interactions, including remembering important information that children have shared (such as favorite colors and other likes) and referencing that information in future conversations, comes from the firm ToyTalk. Oren Jacob, a former Pixar executive, is a co-founder and said the doll can have conversations that last as long as a half an hour.

“Underlying Hello Barbie is the raw technology of speech recognition, of natural language understanding and processing, and, to some degree, of the field of artificial intelligence,” Jacob said.

Hello Barbie and its technology has raised privacy concerns and led to a petition urging toy giant Mattel to stop the release of the doll. It didn’t work.

Mattel’s Barbie business is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and has suffered from slowing sales.

Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which led the petition effort, said they will continue to educate the public about their privacy concerns.

“One of our main concerns is that these toys can be used as viral marketing devices. There’s nothing to prevent them from talking to children about brands or products or new movies or music,” Golin said.

But ToyTalk’s Jacob said they are not marketing to children, and strict regulations under federal guidelines known as COPPA, which protect children’s privacy, would require onerous steps to change their current practices. Jacob said the company had no plans to make such a change.

Jacob also said that the same technology is already employed in mobile applications the company authors, and they have not had privacy complaints from parents. 

But there are other toys on the horizon that pose similar questions about technology versus children’s privacy.

There is a dinosaur powered by the artificial intelligence capabilities of IBM’s Watson computer, the one on Jeopardy. And other toys that rely on cloud servers to pass around data, such as Spiral Toys’ Cloud Pets.

Analyst Sean McGowan of Oppenheimer, who has covered the toy industry for decades, said he is aware of the behind-the-scenes efforts that ToyTalk has employed to keep children’s data private, and is convinced it is robust. He said other companies have an incentive to do the same, to keep parents comfortable with their children’s use of smart toys.

And while some parents may be hesitant to buy smart toys during this holiday season, McGowan believes those concerns will fade soon.

“In a couple of years, parents will be very comfortable with the idea, because they will have seen it in virtually all aspects of their own lives around the house,” McGowan said.

“The idea of things being connected and using a cloud to make their lives better, everyone will be a lot more comfortable with that. And they will have seen other examples of toys that give the child that interaction without posing a threat,” he said.

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