Panel debate with toymakers at EU Commission: Data Ethics in the Internet of Toys

TALKS & EVENTS: On 29th October representatives of toy companies and tech critics met to discuss the evolving Internet of Toys and the data ethical implications of this at the European Commission Safer Internet Forum. The fact that we are talking about data ethics with toy makers at this early stage of the development of an internet of toys is yet another symptom of the paradigm shift in business development where privacy and data ethics increasingly are perceived as competitive parameters.

I chaired and introduced the session. Unfortunately the session was not recorded, but these are my notes from my introduction to the session. Let’s call it There is no limits to innovation if imagination is the only guideline. But where do we draw the ethical line in the Internet of Toys?: 

“You all know E.T., right? In the 1980s Steven Spielberg made a career out of films based on children’s greatest fantasies. The alien E.T. is a spielberg depiction of the ultimate toy that we have all dreamed about at some point in our childhood: a personal companion that learns with you, educates you, grows and develops with you and knows you well. ET and the boy Elliot that finds him after he is left behind on Earth develops an intimate personal relation. Elliot teaches ET to speak (you remember? “beee…good” is the first thing he says), they learn about humans and Earth together.

Today technology innovation is catching up with our childhood dreams. In particular the branch of The Internet of Toys that we call smart toys or intelligent toys based on machine learning technologies or AI are toys that can actually act like children’s very own personal playmates. They come alive so to speak. Disney, Mattel, Fischer price and many other toy companies are all innovating in this category of toys right now.

Now, what does data, privacy and in particular ethics have to do with all of this? Well, data has everything to do with this and as follows so does ethics. Data is what puts life into the toys. There are of course many ways to put life into toys as we will also see in this panel today. It can be data in the form of the child’s voice and what he or she is saying , it can be her face expressions, position in a room and so on. It can be data added by a parent. Data processed in a cloud, or it can just be data exchanged between devices and processed directly on the devices. But data is what makes these toys work.

If we take the example of the smart toys that I mentioned before. Data is what makes smart toys personal and enable them to evolve. They become smart by processing data from a child, adapt to data from its child user, evolve with it, find and recognise patterns in the child’s communication and respond accordingly.

In a minute we’ll show you one example of an intelligent connected toy that is based on one of the most powerful machine learning technologies we know of today: The IBM Watson computer. Watson is one of the first successful attempts to create an artificial intelligence that very accurately can understand and respond to human natural language by using hundreds of different language analysis algorithms based on a data base of encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauri, newswire articles etc. These algorithms then find clues in the data it receives via its sensors.

What I am trying to say here with this elaborate example is that if this type of data exchange is the life of the internet of toys, then ethics must be the narrative that guides its development. There is no limits to innovation if imagination is the only guideline. But where do we draw the ethical line in the IoT of toys? They are not just made out of plush and plastic. They are like E.T. alive and they want to “Phone home”. I dont think any of us really grasp that home and the ethical implications of it, but lets see if we can at least try to understand a little bit about this today.”