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Connected tech, connected homes, connected cars, connected cities … you get the picture: the 21st century is an extremely connected place and, thanks to the internet of things, the world is set to become even more connected.
The current hype, this Christmas and beyond, is the connected toy. Not sure what that means? Well, here are seven things you need to know about this increasingly popular plaything.
Connected toys may sound like an expensive gimmick pedaled by retailers to boost sales, but, in reality, they are a sign of things to come with technology and, more specifically, artificial intelligence (AI).
Once the preserve of more niche industries, AI can now be found in toys. For example, Cognitoys has released a talking dinosaur, which uses IBM’s Watson supercomputer to understand what a child has said. The more a child interacts with the toy, the more it learns.
“Each toy will get to know the child and grow with him/her interacting directly with them to create an experience around each child’s personal interests,” the developers state online.
“The toy will explore favorite colors, toys, interest and use these to customize engagement. Even better, the toy has a personality of its own that changes over time.”
Some may argue that these are simply toys for the digital age, with data often being transmitted over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. However, in reality, toys like Hello Barbie, are also a sign of our future with AI (good and bad). As the futurist Dominic Basulto noted in the Washington Post last month, the level of sophistication is not to be underestimated:
“Unlike the classic Turing Test, however, the kids are not attempting to figure out whether Barbie is human or not – they are simply engaging in a conversation with a make-believe object imbued with consumer-grade AI.”
Smart is a word bandied quite a bit in the tech industry, so it’s no surprise that with connected toys, there is a lot of talk about how sophisticated these toys are, so much so that they can be, advocates argue, instrumental in a child’s development.“At the moment, [connected toys are] in the world of things that companies are trying to market to parents and they’re essentially superfluous or a novelty.”
Given that these toys are in the early days of their development with very little evidence of their educational efficacy, the jury is still out. One such critic of connected toys is Graham Schafer, an associate professor at the University of Reading. He is of the opinion that they “are not very good at the moment”, and smart is perhaps too generous a description.
“I’m an associate professor of cognitive development [and] I wouldn’t recommend them to parents,” he told the Guardian in the summer. “At the moment, they’re in the world of things that companies are trying to market to parents and they’re essentially superfluous or a novelty.”
Nevertheless, he concedes that it’s still very early days – they will get better and more complex – and even then, for youngsters with conditions like autism, they may prove to be effective as they currently stand.
Connected toys are very much seen as being part of the wider Internet of Things ecosystem, meaning that their functionality is likely to go beyond just play and extend into other areas (such as the ‘not so very secure’ connected home).
For example, a much-discussed patent that was originally filed by Google in February 2012 – but only published this year – reveals the tech giant’s thinking on the matter.
“An anthropomorphic device, perhaps in the form factor of a doll or a toy, may be configured to control one or more media devices,” the abstract explained. “Upon reception or detection of a social cue, such as movement and/or a spoken word/phrase, the … device may aim its gaze at the source of the social cue.
“In response to receiving a social command … [it] may interpret the voice command and map it to a media device command … [and instruct] the media device to change state.”
Needless to say, this kind of concept has not been met with universal support. Speaking to the BBC earlier this year, Emma Carr, director of StartUp, expressed her apprehensions.
“The privacy concerns are clear when devices have the capacity to record conversations and log activity,” she said. “When those devices are aimed specifically at children, then for many, this will step over the creepy line.
“Children should be able to play in private and shouldn’t have to fear this sort of passive invasion of their privacy. It is simply unnecessary.”
As noted by Ms. Carr, the biggest potential barrier to adoption of these toys at the moment is concern over privacy. While the Google idea is unique and not on the immediate agenda, with today’s connected toys however, the problem lies with the fact that some devices are capable of storing huge amounts of data about its users.
It’s unclear if this information could be used for advertising purposes, while there’s also the issue of whether children should be continuously monitored by their own parents. If Hello Barbie and other toys record sessions with kids, and make those recordings available to parents, how will this change the parent-child relationship? It’s a question that no one can yet answer.
The Internet of Things may be a relatively new phenomenon but it has already had to deal with multiple challenges when it comes it information security, as noted in a previous article on WeLiveSecurity.
Consequently, it’s not unexpected to learn that connected toys have been found to be exploitable. The most notable example of this came at the start of 2015, when Ken Munro, a security researcher at Pen Test Partners, hacked Vivid Toy’s My Friend Cayla.
Describing the toy as a “Bluetooth headset dressed up as a doll”, Mr. Munro identified four ways in which the device could be attacked, which included a man-in-the-middle attack and random pairing.
“The real fun starts with the mobile app that she interfaces with,” he wrote. “It’s available on iOS and Android, but for this task we looked at the Android version, as it’s generally easier to intercept, decompile, and modify the code.” And the result? They could make the doll swear.
This is an important discovery, as it highlights the cybersecurity risk that connected toys pose. In short, if a device can be connected to the web and other devices, and isn’t secured, it can be accessed stealthily and used to a cybercriminals advantage.
Author Editor, ESET