Mattel cancels release of Aristotle, a controversial AI device

Aristotle device
© Nabi (via Washington Post)

Following an intense controversy around children's privacy rights, the toy company has said the device won't be sold after all.

The real Aristotle was a firm believer in establishing good habits early on in life, but it's doubtful he'd have thought a talking box to be an adequate replacement for loving parents when it came to teaching those habits. I suspect the ancient Greek philosopher would have been unimpressed by his digital namesake, the smart device made by Mattel that was scheduled to hit store shelves in 2018. The modern version of Aristotle was supposed to be a digital nanny of sorts, capable of entertaining, soothing, and instructing young children in everything from good manners to their ABCs.

Parents and educators, however, were much less impressed by Aristotle than Mattel's shareholders were. Nearly 18,000 signatures were added to a petition circulated by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and The Story of Stuff, asking CEO Margaret Georgiadis to cancel the product's release. Two days later, the company said it would comply with the request.

As Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told the New York Times, the Aristotle device was unusual in that it raised so many different concerns.

"First of all, when you have a device with a camera and a microphone that’s going to be in young children’s bedrooms, there is the potential to collect so much data on children that can be used and shared with advertisers and retailers. Then there are all these child development concerns about replacing essential parenting functions with a device."

We should know from past experiences that Internet-connected baby monitors are vulnerable to intrusion. The Story of Stuff writes:

"There are countless disturbing stories that prove the threat is real. Take this hacker who not only spied through a family’s baby monitor, but used it to talk to their child at night. Or, this family who woke up to a stranger screaming at their 10 month-old infant through their monitor. There’s even a search engine which indexes vulnerable webcam feeds, allowing users to peer into people’s lives without writing a single line of code."

Dr. Sherry Turkle, author of "Reclaiming Conversation" and director of the M.I.T. Initiative on Technology and Self, says opposition to Aristotle is not about being anti-technology, but rather a certain type of technology that pretends empathy:

"We can’t put children in this position of pretend empathy and then expect that children will know what empathy is. Or give them pretend as-if relationships, and then think that we’ll have children who know what relationships are. It really says a lot about how far we have gone down the path of forgetting what those things are."

Aristotle reflects poorly on us adults if we are so unwilling to raise our own children that we'd outsource the job to a smart device. As I wrote earlier this year, "If parents are struggling so much with meeting their kids’ needs that they’re considering buying a digital nanny, then most likely it’s time to rethink the support network."

While the petition's victory is something to celebrate, we're likely going to see more devices like this in the future. Their success or demise will depend on how strongly we parents adhere to our values when it comes to raising and educating our children.

Mattel cancels release of Aristotle, a controversial AI device
Following an intense controversy around children's privacy rights, the toy company has said the device won't be sold after all.

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