Mattel’s latest AI brings our infants a new kind of Teddy Ruxpin

TR to AristotleRemember Teddy Ruxpin? The moving, talking bear that read stories to children using pre-recorded audio cassettes which included a controlled data stream? We had one for our first child and she loved it although there was something kind of unsettling about a toy that seemed positioned to take over one of the most rewarding forms of parent-child interaction – bedtime reading. In the end both my daughters tended to leave TR to do daytime reading while we claimed the bedtime slot as our own.

Now thanks to Artifical Intelligence comes a virtual assistant for infants – Mattel’s Aristotle – including a HD camera and voice activated control tower that sits on a table and respond to voice commands and baby noises alike. A parent’s task of midnight soothing of a wakened baby can now be performed by a combination of Mattel engineering and Microsoft programming.

Rich Haridy raises additional concerns about the potential of data that the toy gathers about a child’s behaviours and habits (including what toys they play with), to be used for commercial targeting throughout the owner’s childhood and even adolescence. Aristotle is designed to learn and evolve as the child grows.

Mattel’s Chief Product Officer, Robb Fujioka, assures us that the toy giant is also aware of concerns that kids who interact from birth with compliant virtual assistants could turn out ill mannered. Apparently Mattel is working on ways to have Aristotle teach kids manners – one suggestion is that it will only respond to commands that include the word “please”. He hope kids will develop “emotional ties” to Aristotle and that they will be “the right kind”. We hope so too, but in the meantime perhaps not outsourcing this to technology would be a good move for parents?

(Aristotle story by Felix Gillette, Bloomberg via Stephen Downes)

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