May 9, 2017. Experts and Advocates Ask Mattel to Stop AI “Aristotle” From Spying on Babies & Kids

For Immediate Release

David Monahan, (617) 896-9397; [email protected] 

Experts and Advocates Ask Mattel to Stop AI “Aristotle” From Spying on Babies & Kids

Tuesday, May 9, 2017 – BOSTON, MA – Today, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) called on Mattel to stop production of Aristotle, a new Amazon Echo-type listening and talking device for babies and young children. CCFC is joined by experts in child development, psychology, privacy, and information technology who say Aristotle poses significant threats to children’s wellbeing and privacy. CCFC is hosting a petition which calls on Mattel to discontinue plans to produce the device.

Aristotle, which Mattel describes as a “smart baby monitor” that grows into an AI “friend” for children, is Wi-Fi enabled and has a camera and microphone. It is meant to live in a child’s bedroom from birth to adolescence and be a constant companion that a child can, according to Mattel, “become comfortable with and feel close to.” 

“Aristotle is no friend to babies or children – it’s a marketing device and a data-collecting intruder into family privacy,” said CCFC’s Executive Director Josh Golin.

In order to work, Aristotle collects and stores data about a child’s activity and interactions within range of the device. Because Aristotle connects to other apps and online retailers, that data can be shared with those partner corporations, who in turn can use it to target the marketing of other products to a child or her family. 

Mattel claims Aristotle will help parents, but experts say many of its functions could actually undermine children’s healthy development: 

Aristotle will “soothe” a waking, crying baby with nightlights, lullabies, and sleep sounds. 

“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 sooth themselves.” – Pediatrician and CCFC Board member Dr. Dipesh Navsaria.

In the interest of “child development and learning,” Aristotle will read bedtime stories to children. 

“Story time is about much more than listening to someone read a book. The benefits of bedtime stories come not just from the stories themselves, but from the bonding ritual and emotional and physical interaction between parent and child. Stories delivered by a robot bring no nurturing benefit.” – Dr. Robert Needlman, co-Founder Reach Out and Read, Professor of Pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. 

As a child grows and Aristotle’s algorithms become familiar with his likes, dislikes, and behavior, the device will deliver targeted, commercialized content from partners selling books, music, games, and apps. 

“Aristotle appears to be a device for spying on children from birth to age 13. And worse, it seems that the vast data collected from this spying may be used to market to children and manipulate their behavior.” – Angela Campbell, CCFC Board Member and Director of the Communications and Technology Clinic at Georgetown Law. 

When asked about the impact AI could have on children’s development, Mattel’s chief products officer Robb Fujioka admitted that “honestly speaking, we just don’t know.” He continued: “If we’re successful, kids will form some emotional ties to this. Hopefully, it will be the right types of emotional ties.”

Experts are disturbed at Mattel’s indifference to children’s wellbeing:

“Beyond the callous willingness to use our children as subjects in an unnecessary experiment, there is the more important point about this deployment of AI: With this object, there are no right ties. There are only inauthentic and disappointing ties.” – Sherry Turkle, PhD, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

“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.” – Marc Rotenberg, President, EPIC Privacy. 

“This is not a toy in the classic sense. It’s a data collection device owned and operated by a for-profit corporation with a fiscal responsibility to its shareholders to maximize profit. Children cannot consent to the type of surveillance a machine like this will perform on them, and they are too young to understand what it means to provide Mattel and its corporate partners with this sensitive information, or to understand what it means to interact with artificial intelligence.” – Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

“Mattel claims that Aristotle will help you while educating and nurturing your child. But if used as directed, Aristotle will only weaken essential bonds between kids and parents, while promoting children’s lifelong attachment to corporations and the things they sell. Buy a baby monitor if you need one, not Mattel’s latest attempt to capture your child’s heart and mind.” – Susan Linn, Founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and author of The Case for Make Believe.

“With Aristotle, Mattel seeks to inject corporate surveillance and marketing into the most intimate and important moments of young children’s lives,” added CCFC’s Josh Golin. “We urge Mattel to not rush this device into the marketplace, but to listen to the experts who understand how Aristotle will undermine children’s healthy development.”