Amid Privacy Concerns, Mattel Shelved Planned Device For Kids

Oct 30, 2017
Originally published on October 31, 2017 9:30 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Artificial intelligence is making its way into everyday life. Digital assistants can help you make a grocery list or maybe keep your home climate-controlled. But what if the devices in your home got involved in raising your kids. Well, we have two stories today from NPR's health team on parenting in the age of Alexa. First NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on a talking device that toymaker Mattel pulled from the market.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: When Mattel first introduced dolls that could talk back in the 1960s, this was considered novel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Meet the most amazing doll all time...

AUBREY: Pull a ring, and this doll could speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHATTY CATHY: Would you like pickle ice cream (laughter)?

AUBREY: But what she couldn't do was listen or interact. And Chatty Cathy certainly could not send information to the cloud.

Flash forward 50 years, and technology has changed. Mattel's latest device, something the company planned to call Aristotle, could get to know your child, even respond to your kids needs. If your baby cried, Aristotle could play a lullaby.

JOSH GOLIN: There is a huge world of difference between a Chatty Cathy and an Aristotle.

AUBREY: That's Josh Golin. He's an advocate with the group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. When he first heard about Aristotle...

GOLIN: My first thought was, wow, is this creepy.

AUBREY: In marketing materials, the Aristotle device looks like a baby monitor with a camera. It was designed to be connected to the Internet and placed in a kid's bedroom.

GOLIN: You're talking about a device that was designed to displace essential parenting functions like soothing a crying baby or reading a bedtime story so that children would form an attachment to it. And then that device could be used to collect all sorts of information on a child in their own bedroom.

AUBREY: Now, some tech bloggers wrote enthusiastically about Aristotle and its planned release. But the buzz quickly turned to criticism when pediatricians, parents, even politicians weighed in. Two lawmakers on Capitol Hill wrote to Mattel with privacy concerns. What was the company going to do with all that information they were collecting from children? Thousands of people signed petitions asking Mattel to pull the plug, which the company did this month. Pediatrician Jenny Radesky of the University of Michigan says the pressure was on.

JENNY RADESKY: We have to remember that children don't really understand concepts such as privacy or machine-learning or the way that the device might be reacting to them or manipulating them.

AUBREY: Radesky says when technology is feeding your kids play ideas, this can limit their creative thinking. And the device could drive them away from interactions with their parents and friends.

RADESKY: Evidence shows that children learn a lot more from technology when they have an adult scaffolding them and helping them apply what they've learned.

AUBREY: That technology isn't going away. Artificial intelligence is becoming more responsive. The question is, can devices be designed to help bring parents and children together? Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.