Learning To Live With Learning Machines

In my recent talk, OK Computer, I briefly mention the importance of privacy in systems powered by machine learning, and hint at potential difficulties facing Hello Barbie, the new AI-powered doll from Mattel when the wider world becomes aware that third parties could—or, will—be listening to what children say to it. Well, the wider world has become aware.

Hell No Barbie is a consumer campaign to raise awareness about Hello Barbie, and to prevent parents from buying it. They give eight reasons why Hello Barbie is bad, ranging from the right to private conversations, to the right to be free from being advertised to.

I’m not unsympathetic to these arguments. I agree with most of them (to varying degrees). And it certainly looks as though there are very valid concerns around the security of Hello Barbie, with it reportedly being open to hacking.

But I think an outright dismissal, a refusal to engage with AI-powered toys, misses out on the opportunities that they can bring. Cognitoys Dino is another toy for children, but with a sharper focus on education. And I know from personal experience how much my young nieces and nephews like asking questions to Google Voice Search. In the case of these interfaces, the children are gaining knowledge; but each has the same implications of privacy and security as Hello Barbie.

I think we need to not reject AI toys for children, but to engage with them on better terms. We need to ask the questions necessary to create an ethical framework to accept AI into our homes. On, in the article A Toy That Wants to Phone Home, they suggest some questions that we might want to start with, around data, privacy, commercialisation, and social implications.

This is the approach that I endorse: learning to live with new technology; understanding it, controlling it, and making it work to our benefit.


Also published on Medium.