Primal Numbers – Fast Talking Toys

Whether your doll of choice was a Barbie or a G.I. Joe, chances are that you talked to it. And you probably wished it could talk to you?for real, not just when you pulled a string. Now, Internet-connected toys really can talk to kids, thanks to speech recognition software. It’s easy to see how that could benefit hackers and marketers, but are there any real benefits for kids?

Believe it or not, talking dolls have been around since 1894. The talking-toy phenomenon really took off in the 1960s, and by the ?70s there were even talking trucks and cameras to go along with Barbie and Chatty Cathy. Today’s talking toys add a whole new element though. Connected to the Internet via wi-fi, they can build a database of your child’s likes and dislikes, create new jokes and stories based on a kid’s vocabulary, and even adapt as a child’s interests change.

It doesn’t take much to realize the potential problems with this kind of tech. It’s bad enough that hackers have been able to listen in or talk through baby monitors. Now there’s the potential that they could program your child’s doll to send frightening or inappropriate messages. A programmer in this BBC article demonstrates that very scenario as a precautionary tale.

And it goes without saying that parents should avoid any kind of children’s toy with a camera in it. At least one That’s pointed at the kids.

Then there are the marketing ploys. Will your child’s toy send subtle (or not-so-subtle) messages about the company’s other merchandise? It was exciting enough when kids used to flip through the annual Christmas catalogue and make a list. The marketing pressure will really be on if their favourite toys are urging them to buy things.

But just because a new technology carries negatives doesn’t mean it should be avoided. The Internet itself is a case in point. There are plenty of negatives, but powerful benefits too. The question is, do Internet-connected toys bring benefits that outweigh the risks?

Yes, but only for a small percentage of kids. For example those with autism, who often find interaction difficult. In other cases, talking toys could hinder development. That’s because a computer simply doesn’t come close to the natural speech patterns of a human being. For kids with speech difficulties or delays, so-called conversations with a toy could easily create frustration or make existing problems worse.

Still, there’s the very cool idea that your kid’s talking toys could get to know their personality. That a toy could understand and empathise after a bad day at school. Or that it could encourage kindness if it detects a sulky attitude.

In another twenty years, maybe. But today’s Internet-enabled toys just aren’t that sophisticated. In fact, recognizing human emotions is still just a matter of guesswork for even the most advanced computer. As this Vice article notes, “intelligent machines?so far?can only recognize and remember patterns in data from the physiological symptoms of emotions.”

In other words, a computer can’t pick up on the subtle clues that reveal whether You’re frowning in concentration, anger, or confusion. And That’s with the aid of visual cues. The task gets even harder when a computer has to respond based only on someone’s voice.

So as the annual holiday season approaches, remember this. Kids will no doubt want the latest Internet-connected toys. Go ahead and buy them for the novelty or because they’re someone’s favourite doll. But don’t buy them because the marketers have convinced you they can get to “know” a child and interact like a human friend.

That day is coming, of course. And it could be more fun than you think. Just ask Robot and Frank.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.

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