Connected Families and the Internet of (20 Billion) Things

07/11/2017 11:32 am ET Updated Jul 12, 2017

In the words of Kevin Kelly, everything is being “cognitized” and connected. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are transforming every day objects from toys and toothbrushes to cars and clothes. Our homes, schools, stores, towns and cities are quickly becoming “smart” and interconnected and at a pace and scale that is hard to comprehend.

So what are the inherent risks and gains in the Internet of Tomorrow? At a recent roundtable in London, FOSI set out to raise a wide range of issues that connected devices, toys, and cars could bring to kids and their families. We assembled industry experts, leading researchers, safety advocates, and pioneering NGOs to grapple with the potential safety, security and privacy harms that the internet of things may bring. We also identified the remarkable benefits and rewards that awaits us in a world where sensors, devices and even t-shirts share data with us and one another to keep us safe, healthy and informed.

But first, the group took a look back 20 years to the first White House Internet Summit of 1997. The issues and concerns of the Clinton Administration centered on porn on the internet and pressure was put on the main “portals” and ISPs, such as AOL, Yahoo! and Netscape to create parental controls and safety features in browsers, operating systems, and search engines.

Fast forward ten years and 2007 brought us into the iPhone era and the explosion of social media sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. Now the problem was that the kids were creating the content we were trying to keep them away from, and doing it on mobile devices that were much harder than the family PC to monitor. There were renewed calls for more to be done by the industry, specifically for mobile operators, edge providers, and platforms to create content controls while ensuring privacy and safety. Meanwhile, new educational efforts were launched to respond to behavioral issues like cyberbullying, sexting, and revenge porn.

Ten years later and a new reality that there are over 20 billion connected devices in the world today. There were 275 million wearables sold last year alone, with smart watches leading the pack while connected fitness and health monitors increase each year.

Nowhere is this trend becoming more evident than in the expanding market for connected devices and wearables for babies and toddlers. The “datafied” child is fast becoming a reality and new norms of childrearing are emerging that suggest a “monitored child is a safe child”.

But there are real concerns about the outsourcing of parenting to devices. Many of the monitors sold on the market, while assuaging parental fears about a child’s temperature or heart rate, for instance, are not medical devices. AI-infused dolls that listen as well as talk can provide solace to lonely or bored kids, but questions remain about the security of the data collected and the hackability of the toys, themselves.

The large toy manufacturers, like Mattel, maker of Hello Barbie, appear to be up to the challenge of complying with COPPA and other regulatory regimes in the US and EU. But many of the smaller or emerging toy makers are either unaware of the security and privacy risks that smart, connected dolls and toys bring or are simply ignoring these in a rush to a very lucrative market.

The psychological impact of connected devices and toys is another area of worry as well as potential benefit for kids of all ages and abilities. What is striking is the immersive nature of smart toys, which is of a different intensity to screen-based games. Connected toys come alive and children can imbue consciousness and feelings to these inanimate, but realistically responding, objects.

There is a fear, however, that children’s imaginative play will be stunted by the pre-ordained algorithms that steer the conversations and trigger certain reactions from a child. And yet, speech therapists and others working with kids with special needs, see real opportunities working with smart toys facilitating real breakthroughs with autistic and speech-impaired children.

And it would appear, from early studies, that social and emotional learning can be enhanced by certain types of smart, connected toys and devices. There is a blending of formal and informal learning, tailored to the specific needs of a child, even helping in the acquisition of a foreign language or assisting a kid to code for the first time. Furthermore, imaginative play can be enhanced and encouraged through smart toys.

Of course, many parents will want to eschew these digital play mates for their kids and get them outdoors and into the woods, instead. And if these parents fear for their children’s safety and simply want to know where they are, there are a host of GPS tracking devices, apps and wearables that will alleviate parental fears, while giving the kids the freedom to roam that most of us adults remember as a core part of growing up.

And perhaps, at the end of the day and it’s time to pick up the kids, a driverless car will be dispatched to the edge of the woods to collect them and bring them back to their connected and smart homes.

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