Creepy Dolls - A Technology and Privacy Nightmare!

This post was first published on LinkedIn on 20th May, 2015.

"Hi, I'm Chucky. Wanna play?"[1]  Fans of the horror film genre will surely recall these lines - innocent-sounding on their own, yet bone-chilling in the context of the scene in the movie - that Chucky, the possessed demonic doll, utters in the cult classic, "Child's Play". Called a "cheerfully energetic horror film" by Roger Ebert [2], the movie was released to more than a thousand screens on its debut in November 1988 [3]. It went on to spawn at least five sequels and developed a cult following of sorts over the next two decades [4].

Chucky the doll
(image credit: http://www.shocktillyoudrop.com/)
In "Child's Play", Chucky the killer doll stays quiet around the adults - at least initially - but carries on secret conversations with Andy, and is persuasive enough to convince him to skip school and travel to downtown Chicago. Chucky understands how children think, and can evidently manipulate - or convince, depending on how you frame it - Andy into doing little favours for him. A doll that could speak, hear, see, understand, and have a conversation with a human in the eighties was the stuff out of science fiction, or in the case of "Child's Play" - out of a horror movie.


Edison Talking Doll.
Image credit: www.davescooltoys.com
A realistic doll that could talk and converse was for long the "holy grail" of dollmakers [5]. It will come as a huge surprise to many - at least it did to me - that within a few years of the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877, a doll with a pre-recorded voice had been developed and marketed in 1890! It didn't have a very happy debut however. After "several years of experimentation and development", the Edison Talking Doll, when it launched in 1890, "was a dismal failure that was only marketed for a few short weeks."[6] Talking dolls seem to have made their entry into mainstream retail only with the advent of "Chatty Cathy" - released by Mattel in the 1960s - and which worked on a simple pull-string mechanism. The quest to make these dolls more interactive and more "intelligent" continued; "Amazing Amanda" was another milestone in this development; it incorporated "voice-recognition and memory chips, sensory technology and facial animatronics" [7]. It was touted as an "an evolutionary leap from earlier talking dolls like Chatty Cathy of the 1960's" by some analysts [8]. In some ways that assessment was not off-the-mark. After all, "Amazing Amanda" utilized RFID technology - among the hottest technology buzzwords a decade back. "Radio-frequency tags in Amanda's accessories - including toy food, potty and clothing - wirelessly inform the doll of what it is interacting with." This is what enabled "Amazing Amanda" to differentiate between "food" (pizza, or "cookies, pancakes and spaghetti") and "juice"[9]. "However, even with all these developments and capabilities, the universe of what these toys could was severely limited. At most they could recognize the voice of the child as its "mommy".
Amazing Amanda doll.
Image credit:amazing-amanda.fuzzup.net
They were constrained by both the high price of storage (Flash storage is much sturdier than spinning hard drives, but an order of magnitude costlier; this limits the amount of storage possible) and limited computational capability (putting in a high-end microprocessor inside every doll would make them prohibitively expensive). The flip side was that what the toys spoke in home to the children stayed at home. These toys had a limited set of pre-programmed sentences and emotions they could convey, and if you wanted something different, you went out and bought a new toy, or in some cases, a different cartridge.


That's where things stood. Till now.

Screenshot of ToyFair website
Between February 14-17, 2015, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York saw "the Western Hemisphere’s largest and most important toy show"[10] - the 2015 Toy Fair. This was a trade-show, which meant that "Toy Fair is not open to the public. NO ONE under the age of 18, including infants, will be admitted."[11] It featured a "record-breaking 422,000+ net square feet of exhibit space"[12] and hundreds of thousands of toys. Yet no children were allowed. Be that as it may, there was no dearth of, let's say, "innovative" toys. Apart from an "ultra creepy mechanical doll, complete with dead eyes", a fake fish pet that taken to a "whole new level of weird", or a "Doo Doo Head" doll that had the shape of you-guessed-it [13], of particular interest was a "Hello Barbie" doll, launched by the Fortune 500 behemoth, Mattel. This doll had several USPs to its credit. It featured voice-recognition software, voice recording capabilities, the ability to upload recorded conversations to a server (presumably Mattel's or ToyTalk's) in the cloud, over "Wi-Fi" - as a representative at the exhibition took pains to emphasize, repeatedly - and give "chatty responses."[14] This voice data would be processed and analyzed by the company's servers. The doll would learn the child's interests, and be able to carry on a conversation on those topics - made possible by the fact that the entire computational and learning capabilities of a server farm in the cloud could be accessed by every such toy. That the Barbie franchise is a vital one to Mattel could not be understated. The Barbie brand netted Mattel $1.2 billion in FY 2013 [15], but this represented a six per cent year-on-year decline. Mattel attributed that this decline in Barbie sales in part to "product innovation not being strong enough to drive growth." The message was clear. Something very "innovative" was needed to jump-start sales. To make that technological leap forward, Mattel decided to team up with ToyTalk.

ToyTalk is a San Francisco-based start-up, and its platform powered the voice-recognition software used by "Hello Barbie". ToyTalk is headed by "CEO Oren Jacob, Pixar's former CTO, who worked at the groundbreaking animation company for 20 years" [16], and which claimed "$31M in funding from Greylock Partners, Charles River Ventures, Khosla Ventures, True Ventures and First Round Capital as well as a number of angel investors." [17]

Cover of Misery, by Stephen King.
Published by Viking Press.
The voice recognition software would allow Mattel and ToyTalk to learn the preferences of the child, and over time refine the responses that Barbie would communicate back. As the Mattel representative put it, "She's going to get to know all my likes and all my dislikes..."[18] - a statement that at one level reminds one of Annie Wilkes when she says, "I'm your number one fan."[19] We certainly don't want to be in Paul Sheldon shoes.

Hello Barbie's learning would start happening from the time the doll was switched on and connected to a Wi-Fi network. ToyTalk CEO Oren Jacob said, "we'll see week one what kids want to talk about or not" [20]. These recordings, once uploaded to the company's servers, would be used by "ToyTalk's speech recognition platform, currently powering the company's own interactive iPad apps including The Winston Show, SpeakaLegend, and SpeakaZoo" and which then "allows writers to create branching dialogue based on what children will potentially actually say, and collects kids' replies in the cloud for the writers to study and use in an evolving environment of topics and responses."[20]. Some unknown set of people. sitting in some unknown location, would potentially get to hear and listen to entire conversations of a child before his parents would.

If Mattel or ToyTalk did not anticipate the reaction this doll would generate, one can only put it down to the blissful disconnect from the real-world that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs often develop, surrounded as they are by similar-thinking digerati. In any case, the responses were swift, and in most cases brutal. The German magazine "Stern" headlined an article on the doll - "Mattel entwickelt die Stasi-Barbie" [21] Even without the benefit of translation, the word "Stasi" stood out like a red flag. In any case, if you wondered, the headline translated to "Mattel developed the Stasi Barbie" [22]. Stern "curtly re-baptised" it "Barbie IM". "The initials stand for “Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter”, informants who worked for East Germany’s infamous secret police, the Stasi, during the Cold War." [23] [24]. A Newsweek article carried a story, "Privacy Advocates Call Talking Barbie 'Surveillance Barbie'"[25]. France 24 wrote - "Germans balk at new ‘Soviet snitch’ Barbie" [26]. The ever-acerbic The Register digged into ToyTalk's privacy policy on the company's web site, and found these gems out [27]:
Screenshot of ToyTalk's Privacy page
- "When users interact with ToyTalk, we may capture photographs or audio or video recordings (the "Recordings") of such interactions, depending upon the particular application being used.
- We may use, transcribe and store such Recordings to provide and maintain the Service, to develop, test or improve speech recognition technology and artificial intelligence algorithms, and for other research and development or internal purposes."

Further reading revealed that what your child spoke to the doll in the confines of his home in, say, suburban Troy Michigan, could end up travelling half the way across the world, to be stored on a server in a foreign country - "We may store and process personal information in the United States and other countries." [28]

What information would ToyTalk share with "Third Parties" was equally disturbing, both for the amount of information that could potentially be shared as well as for the vagueness in defining who these third-parties could possibly be - "Personal information"; "in an aggregated or anonymized form that does not directly identify you or others;"; "in connection with, or during negotiations of, any merger, sale of company assets, financing or acquisition, or in any other situation where personal information may be disclosed or transferred as one of the business assets of ToyTalk"; "We may also share feature extracted data and transcripts that are created from such Recordings, but from which any personal information has been removed, with Service Providers or other third parties for their use in developing, testing and improving speech recognition technology and artificial intelligence algorithms and for research and development or other purposes."[28] A child's speech, words, conversation, voice - as recorded by the doll - was the "business asset" of the company.

And lest the reader have any concerns about safety and security of the data on the company's servers, the following disclaimer put paid to any reassurances on that front also: "no security measures are perfect or impenetrable and no method of data transmission that can be guaranteed against any interception or other type of misuse."[28] If the sound of hands being washed-off could be put down on paper, that sentence above is what it could conceivably look like.

Apart from the firestorm of criticism described above, the advocacy group "Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood" started a campaign to petition Mattel "CEO Christopher Sinclair to stop "Hello Barbie" immediately." [29]

The brouhaha over "Hello Barbie" is however only symptomatic of several larger issues that have emerged and intersect each other in varying degrees, raising important questions about technology, including the cloud, big data, the Internet of Things, data mining, analytics; privacy in an increasingly digital world; advertising and the ethics of marketing to children; law and how it is able to or unable to cope with an increasingly digitized society; and the impact on children and teens - sociological as well as psychological. Technology and Moore's Law [30] have combined with the convenience of broadband to make possible what would have been in the realm of science fiction even two decades ago. The Internet, while opening up untold avenues of betterment for society at large, has however also revealed itself as not without a dark side - a dilemma universally common to almost every transformative change in society. From the possibly alienating effects of excessive addiction to the Internet to physiological changes that the very nature of the hyperlinked web engenders in humans - these are issues that are only recently beginning to attract the attention of academics and researchers. The basic and most fundamental notions of what people commonly understood as "privacy" are not only being challenged in today's digital world, but in most cases without even a modicum of understanding on the part of the affected party - you. In the nebulous space that hopefully still exists between those who believe in technology as the only solution capable of delivering a digital nirvana to all and every imaginable problem in society on the one hand and the Luddites who see every bit of technology as a rabid byte (that's a bad pun) against humanity lies a saner middle ground that seeks to understand and adapt technology for the betterment of humanity, society, and the world at large.

So what happened to Chucky? Well, as we know, it spawned a successful and profitable franchise of sequels and other assorted franchise. Which direction "Hello Barbie" takes is of less interest to me as the broader questions I raised in the previous paragraph.

References:
[1] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094862/quotes?item=qt0289926 
[2] "Child's Play" review, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/childs-play-1988
[3] http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Childs-Play#tab=box-office
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child%27s_Play_%28franchise%29
[5] "A Brief History of Talking Dolls--From Bebe Phonographe to Amazing Amanda", http://collectdolls.about.com/od/dollsbymaterial/a/talkingdolls.htm
[6] "Edison Talking Doll", http://www.edisontinfoil.com/doll.htm
[7] http://www.canada.com/story.html?id=f4370a3c-903d-4728-a9a4-3d3f941055a6
[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/25/technology/circuits/25doll.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
[9] http://www.canada.com/story.html?id=f4370a3c-903d-4728-a9a4-3d3f941055a6
[10] http://www.toyfairny.com/toyfair/Toy_Fair/Show_Info/A_Look_Back.aspx
[11] http://www.toyfairny.com/ToyFair/ShowInfo/About_the_Show/Toy_Fair/Show_Info/About_the_Show.aspx
[12] http://www.toyfairny.com/ToyFair/ShowInfo/About_the_Show/Toy_Fair/Show_Info/About_the_Show.aspx
[13] http://mashable.com/2015/02/15/weird-toys-2015-toy-fair/
[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=RJMvmVCwoNM
[15] http://corporate.mattel.com/PDFs/2013_AR_Report_Mattel%20Inc.pdf
[16] http://www.fastcompany.com/3042430/most-creative-people/using-toytalk-technology-new-hello-barbie-will-have-real-conversations-
[17] https://www.toytalk.com/about/
[18] https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=RJMvmVCwoNM
[19] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100157/quotes?item=qt0269492
[20] http://www.fastcompany.com/3042430/most-creative-people/using-toytalk-technology-new-hello-barbie-will-have-real-conversations-
[21] http://www.stern.de/digital/ueberwachung/barbie-wird-zum-spion-im-kinderzimmer-2173997.html
[22] https://translate.google.co.in/?ie=UTF-8&hl=en&client=tw-ob#auto/en/Mattel%20entwickelt%20die%20Stasi-Barbie
[23] http://www.france24.com/en/20150224-hello-barbie-germany-stasi-data-collection/
[24] http://www.stern.de/digital/ueberwachung/barbie-wird-zum-spion-im-kinderzimmer-2173997.html
[25] http://www.newsweek.com/privacy-advocates-want-take-wifi-connected-hello-barbie-offline-313432
[26] http://www.france24.com/en/20150224-hello-barbie-germany-stasi-data-collection/
[27] http://www.theregister.co.uk/2015/02/19/hello_barbie/
[28] https://www.toytalk.com/legal/privacy/
[29] http://org.salsalabs.com/o/621/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=17347
[30] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore's_law


Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.



© 2015, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.