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Mattel cancels AI babysitter after privacy complaints

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The Aristotle was an AI assistant that would sing lullabies to babies and teach them their ABCs

The Aristotle and connected smart cam
Image: Mattel

Toymaker Mattel has shelved plans to build an “all-in-one voice-controlled smart baby monitor,” after complaints about the device were raised by privacy advocates and child psychologists. According to a report from The Washington Post, the company said in a statement that the device, named Aristotle, did not "fully align with Mattel's new technology strategy” and would not be “[brought] to the marketplace.”

Aristotle was unveiled back in January this year by Mattel’s Nabi brand. It combined the smart speaker and digital assistant functionality of Amazon’s Echo with a connected camera that acted as a baby monitor. But the Aristotle was intended to be a much more active presence in children’s lives than an Echo speaker, with Mattel claiming it would read them bedtime stories, soothe them if they cried in the night, and even teach them their ABCs.

A petition asking Mattel not to release the Aristotle gained more than 17,000 signatories. It was organized by the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which said the device not only infringed on children’s privacy by collecting their data, but could have an unknown effect on their psychological development. Politicians also added their voices to the chorus of dissent, with Senator Edward J. Markey and Representative Joe Barton sending Mattel a letter asking how they would protect children’s data. (Mattel says the device would have used encryption to keep private information safe and promised not to sell data to advertisers.)

For some complainants though, the objections were more deep-rooted: that the Aristotle encouraged parents to use technology as a substitute for human interaction.

“My main concerns about this technology — apart from the privacy concerns that [Markey and Barton] are trying to address — is the idea that a piece of technology becomes the most responsive household member to a crying child, a child who wants to learn, or a child’s play ideas,” pediatrician Jennifer Radesky, author of the American Association of Pediatrics' 2016 media guidelines for children aged zero to six years old, told The Washington Post.

With the proliferation of voice-activated electronics, this is becoming an increasingly common concern. Studies have shown children tend to believe robots are “social beings” with “mental states,” and interact with them accordingly. Anecdotal reports of Alexa “teaching” children to be rude (by not requiring that they say “please” and “thank you”) are also common. Parents have long worried about the effects of smartphones and tablets on young children, but voice interfaces allow this relationship with the digital world to begin at a younger age. Artificial intelligence also makes these experiences richer and more engaging.

Just yesterday, Google released an AI-powered camera that’s designed to automatically snap the most interesting pictures of children and pets. It’s not designed to interact with children directly, but shows the increasing use of technology as a mediating presence between adults and offspring. The Aristotle may have been shelved, but its replacement is probably already in development.

Correction: The article previously stated the wrong number of signatories to the petition for Mattel not to release Aristotle. We regret the error.