Is your child's smart toy actually a creepy surveillance tool?

And is anyone protecting children's data?

A baby lies on the bed looking at a toy bear.
  • The market for smart toys is rapidly expanding and could grow to $18 billion by 2023.
  • Smart toys can help with learning but pose risks if they are not designed to protect children's data and safety.
  • Many companies are developing smart toys ethically and responsibly, with makers of AI-powered smart toys encouraged to apply to the Smart Toy Awards.

Imagine a child born this year who will be surrounded by technology at every phase of her childhood. When she is three years old, Sophie's parents buy her a smart doll that uses facial recognition and artificial intelligence (AI) to watch, listen to, and learn from her.

Like many children, Sophie will come to love this toy. And like previous generations of children with a favorite doll or teddy bear, she will carry it around with her, talk with it, and sleep with it beside her for many years.

    If the smart doll is designed responsibly, this toy could be her best friend; if not, it will be a surveillance tool that records her every move and word spoken in its presence by her, her friends, and even her parents.

    Smart toys use AI to learn about the child user and personalize the play or learning experience for them. They can learn a child's favourite colour, song, and learn to recognize that child and other familiar people in that child's life. While this may sound futuristic, there are many smart toys that already provide these capabilities. The market for these toys is rapidly expanding and will grow to $18 billion by 2023.

    To address this urgent use of AI, the World Economic Forum recently launched the Smart Toy Awards to recognize ethically and responsibly designed AI-powered toys that create an innovative and healthy play experience for children.

    Smart toys provide enormous promise for children. They can customize learning based on data they gather about children; they can teach computer programming skills to children; and they can help children with disabilities develop cognitive, motor, and social skills.

    But at the same time, smart toys provide large potential risks if they are not designed to protect children's data, safety, and cybersecurity.

    A cautionary tale

    The example of Sophie's smart doll is not far-fetched. In 2017, My Friend Cayla – an early smart toy that used facial and voice recognition – was declared an illegal surveillance tool in many countries.

    If the Cayla doll was connected to a phone, data was sent to the manufacturer and a third-party company for processing and storage. And anyone with the My Friend Cayla app on their phone within 30 feet of a toy could access the toy and listen to the child user.

    Germany issued a "kill order" for the doll and required parents to destroy it "with a hammer." Today, the only surviving Cayla dolls in Germany reside in the Spy Museum in Berlin.

    The risks posed by smart toys

    Sophie applies to college when she is 18 years old. If her smart doll had collected data on her from the age of 3 to 9, the company who built the toy could know her better than her parents. Without adequate data protections, the company could also sell this data to the colleges to which she is applying or other third parties.

    After college, Sophie applies to a job. If the employer bought data gathered on Sophie as a child, they could learn about her strengths and weaknesses. What if Sophie bullied her younger sister, yelled at her parents, or refused to do her homework as a child? All these actions conducted in the privacy of the family's home could be known by the company and sold to third parties who could use this information to discriminate against Sophie. The family's life is no longer private.

    Today, data is gold but gathering data on children is inherently problematic. As a company gathers data about children through Sophie's doll, they may have a responsibility to act or intervene. Imagine that Sophie tells her doll about suicidal thoughts and self-harm. Should the company be required to alert the parents and call 911?

    The more data that a smart toy gathers the more complex scenarios smart toy companies will likely face. Every company designing a smart toy with the capabilities to gather this information must consider these worst-case scenarios as they develop toys to protect the safety of the child user and those around them.

    Developing responsible and ethical smart toys

    Despite these significant risks, ethical and responsible smart toys are being developed. The Smart Toy Awards have developed four key governance criteria for companies developing AI-powered toys: data privacy and cybersecurity; accessibility and transparency; age appropriateness; and healthy play.

    Sophie's smart doll illustrates the importance of strong data privacy and clearly communicating to adults buying the toy what the smart doll does and how it operates. This must be communicated in the Terms of Service in language understandable by non-technologically literate audiences. At minimum, Smart Toys should meet COPPA requirements in the US and GDPR in the EU.

    Parents and guardians should understand with whom children's data is being shared and for what purpose. Companies should empower parents, guardians, and children to make their own decisions about how children's data is being used. And companies should not sell children's data to third parties.

    Data privacy is a foundation for ethical and responsible smart toys, but they must also be designed to be accessible, transparent, age appropriate, and promote healthy play and children's mental health.

    The future of childhood

    Sophie's doll doesn't necessarily pose concern for her and her parents, and data collected on her won't hinder her future if the data is carefully protected. In the EU, GDPR provides the right to be forgotten, and a similar policy could allow children like Sophie to request that all data collected on them as children by their smart toys be deleted when they turn 18 years old, so they would have a fresh start as they begin adulthood.

    Sophie and all children should have a fair shot at childhood, education, careers, and life. The data collected on them as children should not be used to discriminate against them in the future.

    Smart toys like Sophie's doll can play a pivotal role in childhoods, catalyzing creativity and critical thinking skills. Many companies are developing smart toys with careful consideration for ethics and responsibility. We urge companies to adopt our governance criteria as they're designing and developing smart toys.

    Childhood is a sacred time and parents will do everything they can to protect their children's experiences. This won't be possible unless stakeholders work together across the private, public, and nonprofit sectors to develop ethical, responsible, and innovative smart toys that protect and foster the essence of childhood.

    Reprinted with permission of the World Economic Forum. Read the original article.

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    These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

    Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

    1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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    • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
    • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
    • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

    We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

    While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

    1. Caligula

    Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

    While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

    Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

    Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

    He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

    Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

    He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

    In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

    2. Nero

    Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

    He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

    He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

    He died by suicide.

    Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

    3. Commodus

    Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

    Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

    The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

    4. Elagabalus

    Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

    His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

    He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

    5. Vitellius

    Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

    Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

    He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

    Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

    6. Caracalla

    Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

    He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

    Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

    One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

    Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

    7. Tiberius

    As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

    He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

    "Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

    Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

    There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

    After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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