Smart Toys and the Endangered Solitude of Childhood

Though adults are free to opt in and out of advertising services and control the collection and use of their personal data, children have no such power.

by Alana Massey on July 1st, 2015

“Little puppet made of pine, wake! The gift of life is thine”: the words that set in motion Pinocchio’s journey from toy to real boy. The Blue Fairy speaks and with the wave of her wand, Pinocchio’s expression goes from the vacant stare of inanimateness to one of surprise and wonder as he beholds his new sentience.

From the dancing army of dolls in The Nutcracker ballet to the lovable scamps in Toy Story, Pinocchio is part of a long tradition of toys coming to life to illustrate lessons about imagination, longing, and what it means to be human. But while bringing toys to life was once reserved for the realm of fantasy, bestowed by fairies and the magic of Christmas, today it is increasingly accomplished with artificial intelligence technology and intended for use by real children.

Jiminy Cricket’s declaration as he watches Pinocchio come to life, “Whew! What they can’t do these days!” is more apt than ever seventy-five years later as artificial intelligence looks for a new home in the nursery.

In the last year, a number of toys that can have conversations with humans have moved from the hypothetical into the home. A robotic sheep holds conversations about the weather in Japanese while analyzing linguistic patterns and picking up on human preferences and interests. A more humanoid robot wants to teach emotional intelligence to children and “be your best friend.” A charming green dinosaur answers thousands of questions and keeps pace with a child’s learning. A Barbie with a WiFi connection talks about fashion and remembers a child’s career aspirations so she can encourage them in future conversation. A patent application by Google published in May features a teddy bear and bunny rabbit equipped with speakers, microphones, motors, and cameras who tilt their heads and focus their gazes when interacting with humans.

A stuffed bear in black and white, casting long eerie shadows on the wooden floor.

Photo CC-BY VirtualWolf, filtered.

With each harbinger of the smart toy invasion comes a predictable backlash about privacy and corporate overreach, two very legitimate concerns about experiences branded as dynamic interactions but amounting to surveillance. Defenders of the toys claim they won’t use data collected in conversation for ads, and point to parental controls to quell concern. But these defenses fail to take into account the most profound threat of these toys: that children’s creative play will never happen in the safety of unguided solitude again.

The Inimitable Chaos of Young Minds

Anyone who recalls their own childhood play or who has caught glimpses of kids at play knows that the young imagination is brimming with spectacular nonsense that runs the gamut from admirably bizarre to decidedly grim. The strangeness and unpredictability of these games is less inhibited when a child knows she is not being watched and judged. But today, children no longer reign over their wild kingdoms. Parents hover over play, supervising their children into self-censure to prevent the revelation of some bit of macabre child genius that worried adults will be quick to diagnose as something more than the beautiful madness of a mind unbridled.

The inimitable chaos of very young minds has launched games and worlds that our currently available artificial intelligence technology could not hope to replicate. Current toys in planning or pending patent approval are going to be anathema to spontaneous play, replacing the blank slates of inanimate toys with predictable pre-programmed responses. Mattel’s Hello Barbie responded to the desire of children across all demographics to talk with their Barbie, but the ultimate decisions for her design appear clearly linked to what adults think children should talk about. The Barbie is armed with encouraging advice about future careers. It carries a memory of its owner’s favorite things to discuss. She serves as a compliment generator rather than a facilitator for a child’s expression of her wild interior life where she is safe from the interruptions of parental engagement. This toy sets an agenda for imaginative play that values the highly parental goal of giving a child self-esteem over the less predictable goal of teaching children to enjoy their own unwieldy imaginations. It remains to be seen what this Barbie might do with the secrets children share with her, not knowing she’s a turncoat these days. A reported goal of Hello Barbie is to make her and her child owner become “like the best of friends.” Whoever said this must have had a decidedly dull collection of best friends in childhood.

A good best friend in childhood is a co-conspirator in creative inanity, not a cheerleader for career goals.

Silhouettes of un-dressed Barbies in black-and-white - the image is creepy and full of threatening shadows.

Photo CC-BY Sheila Tostes, filtered.

Google’s cuddly teddy bear and rabbit envision adjusting television volumes and thermostats, other small household chores. Media outlets were quick to label the proposed toys “creepy,” not because they foretell an army of small teddy bears working as household remote controls, but because their faces react to human faces and come with recording devices. The toys are not especially elaborate in their conversational intentions, but the specific hope of appealing to children is cause for concern. Though adults are free to opt in and out of advertising services and control the collection and use of their personal data, children have no such power. Getting to know the voices and preferences of children early makes them ever more reliant on Google as a trusted friend before they can differentiate between brands and people.

A 2012 study found that attaching a character to a brand made children build a close relationship with that brand. The prospect of that character having a conversation tailored specifically to an individual child has potential to breed even more loyalty. An MIT study on the growth of toys that function as surveillance and marketing tools noted: “…marketing in this environment is more than the delivery of advertising; it is a way to steer the child’s play and embed the brand into the child’s sense of identity.” These toys might learn to set ever more advanced commercial and creative agendas that come disguised as children’s play, and the children won’t necessarily register a need to resist: a shared commercial interaction has been normalized into a private social one. Leaving a child alone with such a toy subjects them unwittingly to a 24/7 market research survey before they even know that they are consumers.

These toys no longer exist in the exclusive purview of well-intentioned engineers considering the grand possibilities of smart toys. They are in the hands of venture-funded firms who are keenly aware that there is a sunset date when products must graduate from novel idea to profit generator. The aforementioned MIT study notes that surveillance toys are marketed to parents as ways of controlling children’s behavior, and they likely will once children become aware of the spying capacity of their toys: a famous 1976 study observed children were less likely to steal extra candy even in the watchful presence of their own reflection. The idea that we can trust the tech industry to surrender the enormous commercial potential of these toys from both worried parents and unwitting children is willfully naive when there is pressure and incentive to perform.

“Yep, Temptations”

Statue of Pinocchio on a street in dusk.

Photo CC-BY Michiel Jelijs, filtered.

Of course, learning games designed for interaction and educational purposes have an important role to play in childhood development, and to rally for a return to blocks and rag dolls would be misguided. But replacing toys that work as catalysts for the peculiar energy of children’s minds with toys that force them to capitulate to adult agendas represents an intolerable disrespect for children’s self-determination. With no agenda but facilitating the escape of thoughts and ideas from the interior life into the world, inanimate toys with which children play unsupervised are canvasses for creative play and vessels into which children can deposit secrets. Children need to be protected from the surveillance mechanisms of corporations foaming at the mouth in pursuit of their consumer preferences, but they also need to be protected from the well-meaning but ultimately invasive parental supervision that stifles creative play.

“Yep, temptations. They’re the wrong things that seem right at the time but even though the right things may seem wrong sometimes. Or sometimes the wrong things may be right at the wrong time, or visa versa,” Jiminy Cricket explains to Pinocchio as he endeavors to learn the difference between right and wrong. It would behoove those who argue that a child wanting an interactive toy is sufficient reason to create one to consider the wisdom of the animated cricket. Those who believe that just because we can apply artificial intelligence to toys that we should apply it would benefit from considering that there is a time and place for this technology in our lives. Then perhaps we could see a child alone with her own thoughts not as a problem to be solved but as a form of magic in it’s own right. She is more than capable of breathing life into once-static objects. That we are not always invited to witness the spell, ought not be license to stop it.