Washington - Toymaker
Mattel has announced plans to sell a nursery gadget that will
listen to infants and watch over them, record their sleep patterns, and
even play a lullaby should they awaken.
Put another way: It eavesdrops on kids.
Skeptics are asking if the device, similar to Amazon.com’s Echo with
its Alexa voice assistant, will violate children’s privacy and deepen a
trend of surrendering intimate human connections to technology that
talks and listens.
“The kid tech industry sees kids’ bedroom as an economic
Jeff Chester, executive director of the
Centre for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based policy group that
advocates for privacy protections. “They can get all kinds of profile
information - the kid likes to eat this kind of food, the kid likes to
listen to this kind of music, and we’ll have this kind of information
that we can share with partners and advertisers."
announced Aristotle in January as a “connected kids room platform.” The
device includes a speaker, camera and lights. It’s powered by processors
Qualcomm, and it uses programming from
Microsoft to collect crib-side data and respond to a baby’s needs.
be programmed to launch into a lullaby, emit white noise, or turn on a
night light to soothe a waking baby back to sleep. The monitor sends
data on nap times and diaper changes to a corresponding smartphone app
and, with permission, uploads it to the cloud.
The device can help purchase diapers, reinforce good manners in kids
(by requiring the word "please" in voice commands) and even help kids
learn a foreign language, the company said in a press release.
Aristotle was to be introduced at retail in the summer with a
recommended price of $299, according to Mattel’s January news release.
The product didn’t turn up in a search of Mattel’s shopping website on
Thursday and the company hasn’t said when it will be available or if
it’s been delayed.
Alex Clark, a spokesperson for Mattel, said in an email the company is
“committed to ensuring every product we make meets or exceeds
all applicable laws and regulations, including connected products
intended for children’s use.”
Aristotle wasn’t designed to store or record audio or video, Clark
said. No third parties will have access to any personally-identifiable
information, and any data shared is entirely anonymous and fully
encrypted, he said.
The trend toward talking, listening machines is accelerating. Amazon,
girding for competition from
Apple and Google in the race to equip homes with smart devices,
this week unveiled a slew of consumer gadgets including an Alexa-powered
digital-home hub and a smaller and cheaper Echo speaker.
Mattel is investing in internet-connected toys under a new leader recruited from Google.
“Alexa and Echo have prepared us to say this is OK - to see
something that’s actually quite shocking as OK,” Sherry Turkle, a
professor at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an interview.
She called Aristotle’s lullaby capability “exactly the wrong thing
for a computer to be doing,” because the machine can’t provide the
comfort a human would.
In Congress, two lawmakers in a
letter on Thursday asked Mattel for details on how Aristotle will gather and store information.
“It appears that never before has a device had the capability to so intimately look into the life of a child,” Senator
Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Representative
Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, said in the letter.
“Consumers should know how this product will work, and what measures
Mattel will take to protect families’ privacy and secure their data,”
the lawmakers wrote. Their questions included whether Aristotle will
always be on to record children, and how Mattel will store and protect
Mattel is “carefully reviewing” the letter, said Clark, the company spokesperson.
The El Segundo, California-based toymaker in its announcement of the
product said it paid “special attention” to federal law that requires
websites and apps targeted at children to gain parental consent to
collect and use children’s personal information.
But Chester, with the Center for Digital Democracy, said the law doesn’t protect children once parents give permission.
Margo Georgiadis, hired from
early this year, has laid out
a vision for the 72-year-old company that puts more emphasis on internet-connected devices over traditional toys.
This mission has taken on new urgency as interest appears to be
waning in once-powerful brands such as Thomas and American Girl. Shares
have dropped by more than 40% this year.
But electronics come with implications far beyond selling wooden train sets or dress-up dolls.
"A young child’s bedroom should not be a place for corporate
surveillance and data-gathering," said Josh Golin, executive director of
the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood policy group.
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