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Lower Your Voice; the Toys Might Be Listening

Dan Tynan
Yahoo Tech

(Mattel)

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.

Watch: The 7 Coolest Toys of Toy Fair 2015

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. 

Related: 13 More Totally Awesome Finds From Toy Fair 2015

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.

(Elemental Path)

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.  

Related: Connected Dinosaur Brings IBM’s Watson to Your Kid’s Bedroom

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.  

Parents, though, can view a text log of what their kids have said to the toy, as well as their progress in learning basic math and language skills. There’s an app that parents use to connect the dinosaur to their network. In the app, they can also access the company’s privacy policy and give permission to record their kids, says Elemental Path co-founder JP Benini.  

Benini says the data is anonymized and encrypted on Elemental Path’s servers, and that only parents can view what their kids have said.

Related: 10 Things You Must Know Before You Invest in That Crazy Crowdfunding Scheme

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.

The app was still in alpha stage and the privacy policy was still being written at publication time, so I did not have a chance to check it out. The Kickstarter campaign is only a week old, and there are many hurdles to overcome before the CogniToy becomes an actual product. If successful, though, it could open the floodgates to a host of similar connected toys. 

Blond ambition

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.

COPPA plea

The temptation for toymakers here would be to ask your kids what they want for Christmas, then start spamming you with ads for those toys. Neither Elemental Path nor Mattel has any intention of using kids’ data for marketing purposes, say company representatives. ToyTalk’s privacy policy strictly limits how it uses kids’ audio recordings; parents are always in direct control of all their child’s data, says ToyTalk CEO Oren Jacob.

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.

(Photo: Darren Weaver/Yahoo)

“Let’s say your kid is talking to Barbie and during the course of that conversation the doll picks up on the fact she likes playing with toy kitchen sets,” he says. “Could Mattel present your child with an email offer for another toy based on those conversations? In theory, yes, assuming the company has obtained the parent’s permission upfront and is clear about how it’s using that information.”

However, notice and consent requirements are much stricter under COPPA than they are for a product catering exclusively to adults, he adds. The notice has to be clear and direct, usually contained in an email sent directly to the child’s parents. In some cases, moms and dads might also need to take an additional step to verify they are adults, like providing a credit card number with a purchase or via a government-issued ID.

And Mattel is unlikely to do something like this in any case, says Samet. For one thing, ToyTalk is a COPPA-certified member of Samet’s seal program. For another, there’s the creepiness factor.

“I’ve never seen a scenario where child-friendly companies have wanted to take advantage of this data to benefit marketers,” he says. “They’re really driven by a desire to create a more engaging experience for the child.”

Established companies like Mattel or upstarts like Elemental Path would be foolish to abuse the information kids are sharing with them. But these are early days. When every toy is connected and having personal conversations with your child, that may be a different story. In a few years, the toys you buy your kids will likely come with an end user agreement and a privacy policy you’ll want to pay close attention to.

Toys that talk have been around for decades. Toys that listen — and can respond intelligently in a personal way — that’s new. It’s something we may all have to learn how to deal with.

Send playdate invitations to Dan Tynan via ModFamily1@yahoo.com.