Talking toys bring connected Christmas closer

Many parents will have noticed the invasion of talking, AI-enabled toys hitting the shelves this holiday season. Once inanimate, mute objects on which we had to project personalities, movement and more, the latest high-tech toys are increasingly learning to think for themselves – with sometimes worrying consequences.

One of the most talked about recent examples of such a toy is Barbie. The beloved companion of many, Barbie recently became more interactive than ever with the launch of a Wi-Fi connected version that listens, replies and learns over time. As anyone who has heard Barbie’s suggestion to hold a “pizza party!” will well know, the power of speech isn’t new to the doll – the latest release however is branching out considerably further, combining Wi-Fi and ‘machine learning’ to be able to have entire conversations with playmates.

Much like Siri or Cortana, Hello Barbie is mic’d up and connected to a server in the Cloud which analyzes what is said to the doll and then selects an appropriate response. Learning as she goes along, Barbie mimics a real life friend by remembering details that she can drop into future replies.

While this might be every kid’s dream, it’s likely to be a real cause for concern for the more privacy and security conscious parents among us.

Much of the technology we use on a daily basis is now equipped to ‘listen’ to us in a similar manner in order to facilitate easier, more human interaction. As already mentioned, the most obvious example of this are personal assistants like Siri and Cortana which sit on our mobile devices and activate at our command. An easy enough use case to understand. What can be alarming however, is when technology not traditionally designed to listen to us is enabled to. Smart TVs, for example, have been in the press recently due to their ability to listen to conversations, capture the data and relay it to third parties. Even connected baby monitors have been called out due to their susceptibility to hacking.

As with any connected device, the debated risk is that Hello Barbie could offer an easier in for hackers attempting to intercept your Wi-Fi network. While ToyTalk which manages the toy’s cloud connection emphasizes the security measures it has taken, it also admits that ‘no device is 100% secure.’ On top of their security concerns, parents might also wonder what is happening to the data being captured as their child chats away to Barbie. Is it being stored anywhere? Yes. Is anyone listening to it? Yes. Will that child end up being bombarded with advertising for other talking toys?  Hopefully not – according to ToyTalk, it does share recordings with third-party vendors, but only to improve their products. In any case, it sounds like any secret told to Barbie in confidence won’t stay that way for long!

Whether you like it or not, talking toys could be here to stay. This year, Elemental Path launched CogniToys – talking and listening dinosaurs enabled by IBM’s Watson, the famous artificially intelligent computer able to ‘understand’ human language. Another example is Ubooly, a cuddly bear described as the ‘Learning Toy that Listens’, becoming interactive once connected to a smartphone or tablet. Though only two examples, it’s just a matter of time before more of these toys hit the shelves.

So how do you feel about toys that listen? Will you be letting Barbie say hello to your child? With Christmas just around the corner, it’s worth considering the security implications of the latest high-tech toys available this season, and how connected you want your child to be.

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