Earlier this month (Oct 5), toy behemoth Mattel withdrew plans to sell an interactive device for children.
Named Aristotle, the gadget looks like a plus-sized baby monitor. Designed in red and white, Aristotle was pitched to be a child’s best friend and could learn about a child’s behaviour, needs, wants and developmental progress, amongst others.
“Aristotle is designed to comfort, entertain, teach, and assist,” Mattel’s press release read.
It could even double up as a babysitter of sorts, and help “sooth a crying baby, purchase diapers… reinforce good manners in kids, and even help kids learn a foreign language”.
Critics, however, labeled Aristotle as creepy.
The reason for this? Aristotle’s ability to not just give a child information, but to collect information from said child – and then upload it to the cloud.
Red flags were immediately raised and waved vigorously. Many, such as parents and politicians were concerned with the ‘P’ word – privacy.
A second question was also raised: What would Mattel do with the information they collected from children?
While the decisive backlash from the masses eventually put an end to Aristotle’s intended release, with a Mattel spokesperson commenting on behalf of his company’s chief technology officer that Aristotle did not “fully align with Mattel’s new technology strategy”, the idea of a device watching and learning our behavior is not gone.
Think Google’s Home, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Echo, interactive ‘personal assistants’ that are all run by its artificial intelligence (AI) system, Alexa.
It is, though, noteworthy to mention that Alexa’s abilities would probably pale in comparison to Aristotle’s, due to its inability to understand questions posed by children.
Yet, machine learning is already present in these devices – any of the aforementioned three could accustom itself to tell jokes, play music and, answer question after question (giving answers while collecting information within the questions).
And they are always listening. Think Google. It is always on the lookout – or ‘hearout’ in this case – for its trigger words: “Ok Google”.
Machines that are characterized by a two-way flow of information have been a popular ‘sci-fi’ concept in pop and film culture.
It was notably popularized by satirical series Black Mirror. The brainchild of English writer Charlie Brooker, one of Black Mirror’s earlier episodes, Be Right Back, is scarily similar in concept to Aristotle and Alexa.
‘Be Right Back’ first aired in 2013, and was the first episode of Black Mirror’s second season.
In the episode, a grieving widow Martha copes with the death of her husband, Ash, by ordering a life-sized robot of him.
The robot initially learns and mimics Ash’s behaviour and habits through his social media platforms. However, it could also evolve itself and change to fit Martha’s preferences by observing her, with or without her noticing.
And in Her, a largely successful science fiction and romance film, this theme of artificially intelligent devices watching and responding, learning and interacting, is repeated yet again.
Set in near-future Los Angeles, a newly divorced man, Theodore, buys an operating system so advanced that it could proofread his writings (he is a writer by trade), compose music, read through an entire book in one tenth of a second, and even experience nuanced human emotions such as happiness, sadness and – get this, falling in love (with Theodore).
It is no wonder that many are alarmed by this escalation of technology – what was once satirical or fiction-like plots in movies and television dramas have now permeated into real life, and in the context of Aristotle – it almost pervaded the bedrooms and daily life of children.
A Black Mirror inspired iPhone X?
Black Mirror, for all its application of dark humor, sarcasm and wit on modern society, has no doubt, unintentionally predicted the future of our society on more than one occasion.
Case in point, whilst unveiling the iPhone X (a device that many children would probably use daily), Apple proudly shared with its fans a new feature of the phone’s “TrueDepth” camera.
The feature allows users to make facial expressions at the iPhone X; those expressions will in turn, through facial recognition technology, be scanned and morphed into animated avatars (Apple calls them ‘animoji’).
This again mimics a Black Mirror episode called “The Waldo Moment”, which is based on a blue CGI bear named Waldo whose role is to interview politicians during election period in a small town.
In the episode, Waldo is voiced by a comedian, Jamie, who could also control its facial expressions (much like the interactions between Apple users and the ‘animojis’).
Initially, the bear’s popularity and influence on the town’s people grew tremendously. However, through a series of events, it eventually spiraled out of control and caused mayhem, violence and riots in the town.
While these consequences might be a stretch, the striking resemblance between Apple’s ‘animojis’ and Waldo is not.
Case in point, check out the tweet posted by Brooker below and how seamlessly well Waldo fits in with the rest of the ‘animojis’ (Waldo is at the second row, second from the right).
— Black Mirror (@blackmirror) September 12, 2017
As ‘intelligent’ devices play a bigger and bigger role in children’s lives, all parents will inevitably have to decide and ask themselves this: When it comes to technology, how young is too young?