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Alexa controversy: What are voice assistants teaching our children?


In January 2017, toy company Mattel revealed a prospective new product – a voice-activated smart assistant designed to interact with your child at all stages of their development. Called Aristotle, the device was essentially an Amazon Echo for kids designed to, "comfort, entertain, teach, and assist during each development state — evolving with a child as their needs change."

By May of 2017, public debate was raging over the appropriateness of whether a device such as this should even be developed. A petition calling for the product's release to be canceled gathered more than 15,000 signatures, and then two US Senators, Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, sent a letter to Mattel raising several privacy concerns.

"Aristotle appears capable of recording and transmitting personal and sensitive information about a child's development back to Mattel," wrote Markey and Barton. "This new product has the potential to raise serious privacy concerns as Mattel can build an in-depth profile of children and their family. It appears that never before has a device had the capability to so intimately look into the life of a child."

In October, Mattel responded to the controversy by canceling plans to release the device. The company didn't specifically address the ethical implications of the product in its public statements but simply suggested, "After our new CTO, Sven Gerjets joined the company in July, he conducted an extensive review of the Aristotle product and decided that it did not fully align with Mattel's new technology strategy."

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