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Mattel's parenting takeover continues with Alexa-like dystopia

Creepy: Aristotle gets a female voice, advertisers' ears

By Richard Chirgwin, 4 Jan 2017

Today in “what could possibly go wrong?”, the company that gave the world the infamous “Hello Barbie” now wants its Amazon Alexa look-alike in kids' bedrooms.

To wild applause from consumer gadget media, Mattel is pitching its Aristotle (with a female voice because that's how Greek philosophers roll these days) as a virtual assistant with artificial intelligence.

Designed for dystopian parents terrified of having to learn child-care themselves, the lady-Aristotle is pitched to Bloomberg as something that will “help purchase diapers, read bedtime stories, soothe infants back to sleep, and teach toddlers foreign words”.

At the same time, it's going to avoid the kind of vocabulary that made “Amazon Alexa Gone Wild” a viral hit (a misunderstanding that led to Alexa spouting porn search terms to a toddler).

Suckers holding their breath for the mid-year launch so they can part with US$300 for the geegaw are promised encryption between Aristotle and the various cloud services (including the obligatory app), a host of complementary products (including partnerships with retailers hoping to hitch a ride to flog nappies), and whatever else the company can think of.

If the Vulture South tone seems excessively snarky, it's because in the hothouse of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, nobody seems to be asking “hang on, didn't Mattel have trouble with Hello Barbie?”

Developed by Toy Talk and flogged in partnership with Mattel, The Register noted at launch in February 2015 that the artificially intelligent (there's that word again) airhead sent recordings of kids' voices off to remote servers under the usual reassuring “improve your service” bromide.

Our focus at the time was security and privacy – as @munin Tweeted in 2015, “It is flat-out wrong to subject children to the need for OPSEC when playing with their toys” – but it's also worth revisiting the words of prominent US pediatrician and CCFC Board member Dr Dipesh Navsaria:

"Computer algorithms can't replace — and should not displace—the nuanced responsiveness of caring people interacting with one another. Children's well-being and healthy development demand relationships and conversations with real people and real friends.”

Hello Barbie quickly became a thorn in Mattel's side. In November 2015, Matt Jakubowski demonstrated how insecure Hello Barbie is: encryption doesn't help much if the device itself gives away its crown jewels over the Wi-Fi connection.

In September 2016, Mattel was among a group of companies (along with Viacom, Hasbro and JumpStart) to cop a fine of more than US$800,000 for violating America's COPPA (Children's Online Privacy Protection Act) in how they store and handle data about children.

Won't someone think of the router?

In telling Bloomberg it's designing Barbie-Aristotle to comply with COPPA, Mattel is saying nothing more than “we got burned so this time round we're not breaking the law”.

But to lift an image from Douglas Adams, Mattel has erected a giant Someone Else's Problem field around the rest of the environment the gadget will live in: a home network “protected” by some kind of home router.

In other words, Aristotle is going to be deployed in networks that effectively have little or no security. Even a diligent end user can get burned by a vendor – ask Netgear owners, for example.

We won't know until Aristotle gets in the hands of researchers how well it stands up to life on the Internet – nor what risks exist for the ninety-nine percent of people who won't bother to change the default admin password.

We can hardly wait to see what horrors await us when Aristotle hits the shelves. ®

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