Business Today

When Toys Get Smart

Toys powered by artificial intelligence present a huge business opportunity, but unsurprisingly, warning bells are going off in the adult world
twitter-logoBusinessToday.In | Print Edition: November 17, 2019
When Toys Get Smart
Illustration By Safia Zahid

Artificial intelligence (AI) is now found almost everywhere - in smartphones and smart homes, in schools, on factory floors and even in big-scale 3D printing units (the latest revelation is that AI robots can 3D-print entire rockets). So, it is not surprising that your kids' toys will also get a big dose of AI.

The market for AI toys is expected to grow at a CAGR of more than 35 per cent till 2026, as per a study by The Research Insights, a Pune-based analytics and advisory firm. Another report by digital publication TechRadar pegs it at $54 billion by 2024. Connected toys come in all shapes, sizes and colours, and many are already within your easy reach, like the intelligent robots sold on Amazon. But there are no benchmarks yet regarding their intelligence or their humanlike abilities to react and engage.

Given this scenario, it is understandable to have qualms about outfitting toys with AI and Internet connectivity as children are the most vulnerable of technology users. Why should parents buy intelligent toys instead of leaving their children to play with simple ones which have existed for decades? There are several reasons. Not all children have companions to play with due to nuclear families and social circumstances. But more importantly, the use of smart toys helps children learn from a very early age and gain from customisation of the learning procedure. Going by what a child is saying, AI-embedded toys and apps can assess his or her level of knowledge and come up with the kind of exercise or interactions that will encourage further learning. This not only brings down unproductive screen time but also helps a child get a taste of the high-tech future. Besides, those with learning difficulties often interact better this way; a few others have shown a rise in empathy.

AI toys have so much potential that the World Economic Forum (WEF) is taking the 'Internet of Toys' seriously. In fact, it is conducting a project with UNICEF to accelerate the deployment of AI in education. But it is also looking to mitigate risks from a technology we do not understand fully. Kay Firth-Butterfield, Head of AI and Machine Learning at the WEF, voiced some of these concerns when she said, "With regular schooling, you know what the curriculum is. With AI applications, parents don't know what the curriculum is and who owns it or even to what standard it has been created." All AI applications need to start with a strong foundation of ethics, and that is the difficult part. Therefore, Firth-Butterfield is trying to work with multiple stakeholders, including governments, businesses, civil societies and academia.

The route via smart toys is a smart one as natural language processing, computer vision and machine learning have the potential to make them engaging as well as powerful. Nevertheless, we do not have precedents for how such applications affect emotional, personal and social growth. Children may learn faster, more readily and with much enjoyment, but the impact on their cognitive development is unknown. Already, many of them learn to speak to Alexa rather early in life. But will their digital intelligence quotient take precedence over other important areas of growth?

Privacy, of course, will be another big concern. The lines are blurred between a toy/app interacting with children and marketing things to them. Would it be possible to regulate this aspect as things have already gone haywire in the connected adult world?

Three Words to the Right Address

Wedding-Horseshoe-Broccoli, Trample-Punctuate-Supper, Dives-Topped-Scenes - no, not gobbledegook but a unique way of outfitting the planet with precise addresses. A London-based start-up, what3words, says it has assigned a unique address to each 3x3m square in the world. The words are generated using the company's app and guide the location seeker to the precise place. "Three-word addresses are easy to say and share, and are as accurate as GPS co-ordinates," says the company's website. The start-up encodes geographic co-ordinates into three dictionary words and the encoding is permanently fixed. The company helps with situations where there are no precise addresses or where Google does not lead straight to the spot. The app claims to have rescued lost people as well. According to the company, its revenue comes from charging businesses for high volume use of the API. For other users, the services are free.

Technology adviser and 'digital troublemaker' Terence Eden, however, says that it is not based on open technology and uses proprietary algorithms. You need to understand its policy and pay if usage is above 10,000 addresses. Also, English words are not universally understood and if words from another language is translated for address coding, the location could turn out to be quite different.

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