Who’s Watching The Kids?

It wasn’t long ago that we saw the Echo bloom into existence as a standalone product from its conceptual roots as a smartphone utility. These little black columns have hardly collected their first film of dust on our coffee tables and we’re already seeing similar technology debut on the toy market, which causes me to raise an eye-brow.

There seems to be some appeal towards making toys smarter, with the intent being that they may help a child learn while they play. Fair enough. It was recently announced that a WiFi enabled, “Hello Barbie” doll will be released sometime this Fall. This new doll will not only be capable of responding to a child’s statements and questions by accessing the Internet at large, it will also log the likes and dislikes of its new BFF on a cloud database so that it can reference the information for later conversations. Neat, right? Because it’s totally safe to trust the Internet with information innocently surrendered by your child.

Similarly there is a Kickstarter going on right now for a re-skinned box-o-internet for kids in the shape of a dinosaur. The “GreenDino”, is the first in a new line called, CogniToys, from a company touted by IBM which has its supercomputer, Watson, working as a backbone to answer all of the questions a child might ask. In addition to acting as an informational steward, the GreenDino will also toss out questions, and upon receiving a correct answer, respond with praise.

Advancements in technology are stellar. Though I can see where a child version of myself would love having an infinitely smart robot dinosaur to bombard with questions, in the case of WiFi and cloud connectivity, the novelty doesn’t outweigh the potential hazards the technology is vulnerable to. Like what, you ask?

Whether on Facebook or some other platform, adults accept the unknown risks involved when we put personal information out on the Internet. Say for instance I allow some mega-corporation to store on their cloud that my favorite color is yellow. By doing so, I accept the potential outcome that I will be thrown into a demographic and advertised to… or in ten years be dragged to an internment camp by a corrupt yellow-hating government who subpoenaed information about me from the corporation I consensually surrendered it to.

The fact is that I understand those types of risks… no matter how extreme and silly they might seem. The child playing with the Barbie does not.

All worst case scenarios of personal data leakage and misuse aside, what happens when Barbie starts wanting accessories? Or says to their new BFF something like, “Wouldn’t we have so much more fun if I had a hot pink convertible?”

65 thoughts on “Who’s Watching The Kids?

    1. Imagine the parental outrage if barbie suddenly developed opinions. “Foreign trade with China is good for you!” “Raising the minimum wage hurts the economy!” “Please buy our new Matell products! ” “I love a delicious McRib sandwich, available now for a limited time!”

      1. barbie knows the answers to all of your bank’s “security questions” like “what is your favorite color” and “who did you take to the prom” and barbie is selling the information to the highest bidder

    1. In what way is this not about cool tech? The technology in these toys is amazing, but we must temper our enthusiasm to apply cool tech to every problem with some thought about how and why we’re using it, and what effects it might lead to. To draw a ridiculous parallel: imagine the use of the really cool coolant and propellent technology that was CFC, we were so enthusiastic to have refrigeration in our homes that we didn’t stop to think of the effect that their use would have on the world and we ended up with a hole in the ozone layer.
      Now I’m obviously not saying that anything bad would come from Barbie knowing what my niece’s favourite colour is, but I do believe that my niece’s welfare deserves some caution.

      1. “The technology in these toys is amazing”

        It’s not “amazing”, look up the word. With all the technology around you the proper word is “pedestrian”

        “we were so enthusiastic to have refrigeration in our homes”

        nice try but most of the leaking CFCs are coming from AUTOMOBILE air conditioners.

        “Now I’m obviously not saying that anything bad would come from Barbie knowing what my niece’s favourite colour is,”

        Well MAYBE YOU SHOULD BE SAYING THAT because now Barbie has the answers to your niece’s bank account security questions.

        1. But all of the technology around me is amazing, I have a clock which is accurate to one second in a year, I have access to a communications network which lets me speak to someone on the other side of the world, I have a thing which fits in my handbag but gives me access to the largest store of information ever. I am constantly amazed at what we can do.

          Um… the source of the leaking CFCs isn’t really the point of that comparison.

          As I was saying earlier, caution.

    1. +1 for the future. Really loved that book..
      -1 for any corporation ‘teaching’ kids, but who decides what children should be taught ?
      Certainly no single hidden authority, whether private or public. Transparency is required to moderate extreme views.
      Now go read/watch Who watches the watchmen…

  1. Instantly reminded me for the emotionally manipulative robot story in the dilbert comics: http://dilbert.com/strip/2015-02-05

    The scope for abuse of this kind of technology is astronomical. for a start, making sure the answers are actually correct, would there be a lobby in the US for a certain subset to refute darwins theories, so when the child asks “how was the earth made” they get claptrap instead of science.
    Scary concepts.

  2. Advertisers, pedophiles and NSA will love hacking this new toy. How much more effective would a pedophile be at luring kids if they knew all the secrets they tell barbie? how much information could the NSA retrieve about a kid’s parents from one of these? Advertising is the least of my worries.

        1. The problem there is that people get called hackers for using age old google search query’s;

          But obviously the real problem is that millions of people have “ip cams”, often for security reasons, while actually clueless about security.

          OT: creepy shit, that barbie toy, i hope they get banned before shit unfolds as the article describes, because it will go down like that if we allow these kind of toys.

    1. The positive thing is that maybe such toys will prevent people ending up like you, spouting ridiculous brainless nonsense on the internet.

      But on the other hand, it might create more of them :o

      It all depends on the sources used and the way information is presented.

    1. Yeah, it’s not like Echo Barbie will only listen to what the 4 year old is saying, for her own sanity, she’ll want to listen to adult conversation every now and then. And when she is left in the back seat of the mini-van, she’ll be sending Big Brother acceleration and position data along with audio/visual (tiny cameras for eyes)

  3. When I was growing up in Poland under defacto Soviet occupation my parents warned me to never talk in school about whats happening at home – apparently UB/SB (security service) had a habit of visiting schools and asking kids to rat on their bad unpatriotic parents …..

    gee, wonder what NSA could do with such a toy.

      1. Probably for children safety. Letting a child have access to a gun is pretty dangerous. If a child know his parents have guns, that means that they are in is sight. Hide your guns from you children, this is not a lot to ask for.

        1. Oh sure, because a responsible parent would never “teach” their children about guns and how to respect/use them safely. The only way a child would know that guns were present would be because of ignorant, irresponsible parents that leave their guns on the coffee table to keep the Inquirer from blowing off when that cool fan turns on its own, right.

  4. This is a great write-up, thanks for putting that out there.

    I am not sure what all this toy can do, but out side of government and corporate spying, what about parents spying on kids. Janie has a sleep over and Sally says “my mom said your mom …”. Let the public shaming and humiliation begin. This could take PTO politics to a new level.

  5. A far greater concern is what kind of subliminal messages might be pushed to kids via this kind of toy? We already know for a fact that government agencies abuse their authority/power to such an extent that their willing to publicly go after someone (Edward Snowden) just for leaking to the public the unconstitutional and illegal acts they have engaged in. They go in front of Congress and point blank lie about what they do and there is little to no accountability when they are caught.

    In reality the leadership at the CIA, FBI and the rest of our Intelligence Agencies are all out of control and full of corruption and no one in our representative branch of government is doing anything about it. That’s because most have either been bought off or blackmailed and/or have dies under mysterious circumstances. I can easily see the government using these kind of toys to subliminally push a political agenda onto that generation and no amount of joking or derogative slurs like “conspiracy theory” are going to change this. One can either choose to pretend like everything is as advertised or accept that we have an out of control government that has to be reigned in and the dangerous partnerships between our government and private industry has to be severed..

    1. Once again..the government isn’t the only evil entity. Look at what Facebook did with subtley changing posts to influence feelings. Apply that type of thing to toys like this…I shudder to think of the subliminal sheep building that will be going on.

      All hail our new shepherds…er overlords.

  6. enough with the privacy hysteria. The amount of criminal acrobatics necessary to do anything that damages you in any way far exceed what is necessary for a degenerate junkie, or worse – an estranged uncle can (and will at astronomically higher probability) due to destroy your life or those of your loved ones forever.

    Also I praise the option to simply STFU and let people do/buy what they want.

    1. mmm the good old ‘Im ignorant and I like it that way’ speech
      the difference is scale, chances of bad uncle are small and incidental, unified and ubiquitous centrally managed propaganda/infiltration platform targeting children is on entire different level

  7. Just one more tool in the hands of Hole-e-wood to infect kids with their world.
    There is no culture anymore just weeds of product. No wonder the likes of ISIS etc.
    I can see some great performance art coming out with Barbie being chained and tortured.
    The sounds from a mic are one thing but the words from speech converter is info in a condensed form for use by anything or anyone. Did George Orwell really timeslip to this application!
    Between the Samsung TV’s and X-box listeners. We got some pruning to do.
    Monitoring test.
    President Bush, whose name in French sounds like an exploding bomb will be heard yet again on the francophone airwaves. Yebb Boosh!

  8. I work as a media literacy teacher, and every day I’m working hard to try to get kids to understand that all information online has a source. That is, it was put there by someone who may or may not have your best interests at heart. More than concerns about privacy and advertising mentioned here, I am deeply frustrated by any tool which attempts to make online knowledge even more abstracted from it’s sources than it already is, whether that’s talking barbie or Wolfram Alpha.

  9. If you internet enable some parts of your life, you need to understand that you are inviting the whole internet to it, not just the nice good side you think is interacting with you.

    I’m leaving the internet just on the obvious things. Preferably the ones with an off switch.

  10. “with the intent being that they may help a child learn while they play”
    Ahahahahah ! Of course ! Yeah ! Right ! True story brah ! Toys manufacturers obviously want to teach children. They are so altruistic !

  11. The nice thing about the connectivity to the net is that you can compile a list of bad parents, and a list of potential dangerous teens a few years later.

    Enables you to keep the thing contained.

  12. Sadly, it probably won’t be nearly as exciting as all of the comments here. The interaction will be extremely bland and formulaic, like pretty much all speaking machines so far. People complaining about safety and privacy just slow things down, too.

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