Mattel's invention is being hailed as the latest evolution of the baby monitor, but it seems more like a disturbing intruder.
Would you install a spy camera in your child’s bedroom that was open to the Internet? Most parents would probably say no, and if not, I suspect that Child & Family Services might a few valid questions to ask. So why aren’t more people up in arms about Mattel’s latest creation?
The toy company recently announced the launch of Aristotle, a digital nanny-companion for children. The device is meant to replace certain tasks traditionally met by parents or other adult humans, such as recognizing when a child wakes up, soothing with lullabies, white noise, or a favorite song, answering questions until a child falls asleep, optionally requiring kids to say 'please' when making requests, and even tutoring foreign languages; but it does more than that. PSFK describes it enthusiastically:
“[Aristotle] has a Wi-Fi enabled camera that can detect motion and identify objects. Parents can watch the video feed on their smartphones from another room, and even utter commands to help calm a crying or scared child. Among the uses of this clever device include the ability to order baby toys and supplies, dim lights, play kids’ tunes and lullabies, act as a baby monitor, and tell jokes to a child. There are also several child-friendly learning assists, including quizzing toddlers on their ABCs or teaching them their colors with flashing colored lights. It can also help children from kindergarten to 8th grade complete their homework or find age-appropriate entertainment.”
Tech writers are calling it “the most exciting thing Mattel has ever produced,” but I fail to see wherein lies the excitement. Aristotle sounds more like a nightmare than a good idea.
First there’s the disturbing thought that children won’t be getting the face-to-face interactions that they need and want from parents. There’s a lot more going on than the simple fulfilment of a task when a parent sings to an infant, reads a bedtime story to a toddler, and sits down to practice phonics with a school-aged kid. There’s an emotional connection, a bonding ritual, happening at the same time. Paediatrician Dipesh Navsaria agrees:
“A baby awakening in the night needs more than smoke-and-mirrors ‘soothing’ from a machine. They need the nuanced judgment of a loving caregiver, to decide when the child needs care and nurturing and when the child should be allowed to soothe themselves.”
What about the long-term effects of children becoming attached to a robot, rather than a real human being? We have no idea what effect this could have on a child, and it seems a wholly unfair experiment to initiate without their informed consent. Even Mattel's chief of product officer, Robb Fujioka, admits that we don't know how this will play out: "Honestly speaking, we just don’t know. If we’re successful, kids will form some emotional ties to this. Hopefully, it will be the right types of emotional ties.”
Finally, it’s downright creepy that Aristotle stores information about children. According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, it can track “babies’ feeding, sleeping, and changing patterns, stores and analyzes that data, and prompts parents to buy diapers, formula, and other products from its corporate partners.” This data about children could be shared with other corporations and used to target parents and kids with marketing. Another name for this is ‘spying,’ as Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, points out:
“Companies that offer Internet-connected toys are simply spying on young children. And they can’t even protect the data they secretly gather. They have already lost passwords and personal data and exposed families to ransomware demands. Toys that spy are unsafe for children.”
I prefer to stick with actually parenting a child I’ve chosen to have, as these years are fleeting enough. 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.
The Story of Stuff has launched a campaign telling Mattel that our children's privacy is not for sale. You can add your support by signing the online petition here.