All I want for Xmas
Don’t bother telling Santa what’s on your wish list. Supercomputers already know
It was bound to happen. The gift of giving has gone hi-tech. Deciding what people really want for Christmas is now in the hands of a computer – or, more precisely, an algorithm. But it’s not just any computer; it’s IBM’s supercomputer, Watson. Watson, named after former IBM president Thomas Watson, is most famous for being the first computer to beat a human in the game show Jeopardy! during an epic heads-vshard drive battle in 2011. And now Watson knows what your heart truly desires for Christmas.
Watson Trend is a big data-analysing service that taps into billions of social-media conversations, analyses what new gadgets or toys people are talking about (and therefore coveting) and then ranks the items into a convenient list that even provides nuanced insights about each item, such as if a person has positive or negative feelings towards something they bought or are planning to buy.
But it’s not just Watson that’s getting into the Christmas crystal ball business. Local online trading site bidorbuy has released its analysis of its big data and found that South Africans are coveting drones, even though there are still restrictions on the commercial use of the unmanned aircraft.
Bidorbuy CEO Jaco Jonker revealed: “The search term ‘drone’ is now among the 10 most frequent on the site, shoulder to shoulder with watches, smartphones, laptops, tablets, consoles, games, toys and hobbies,” which dovetails with Watson’s assertion that the Apple iWatch is topping many people’s wish lists.
However, while algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) are making gift selection easier, you might hesitate when the toy you buy is also embedded with AI. It works both ways. Responsive toys are starting to appear more frequently on the shelves and are raising the eyebrows of many parents.
Dino is a cute, green, plastic dinosaur made by CogniToys and uses Watson’s very own speech recognition and cognitive abilities to create an interactive experience.
Dino connects directly to your Wi-Fi network and is able to engage in conversations with your child, remembering personal details such as his or her name and favourite colour. With the help of Watson’s fast processing abilities, Dino can answer complicated questions like “Where do babies come from?” in a child-appropriate way. I’m sure most parents will be more than intrigued to hear how that question is answered by the supercomputer.
But Dino is not the only interactive talking toy available this festive season. Just released is Hello Barbie, a new doll that – like Dino – has the ability to record conversations your child is having with it, relay those conversations to a server via Wi-Fi and, with the help of voice recognition software, process what your child just said and formulate a rapid, realtime response. Hello Barbie is optimised to respond to children between the ages of three and nine, and can have a conversation involving up to 200 exchanges between child and doll.
While Dino is designed to only track one child’s preferences and conversations, Hello Barbie will remember whether a child has brothers or sisters and when they last played together. While toy makers are promoting the potential of AI toys to, for example, assist children with autism or speech impediments, parents are understandably a little unnerved. But wait, there’s more. Earlier this year, Google published a patent for an internetconnected teddy bear that uses facial recognition to identify the gaze of whoever is looking at it and then respond. This toy is equipped with sensors, cameras, microphones and a wireless internet connection, and will be able to respond to voice commands and turn on a connected media player (eg, play music). In essence, it taps into the Internet of Things and can be connected to the rest of your home appliances. You might be relieved to know this toy is not commercially available – yet.
These gadgets have, unsurprisingly, received negative attention. With hacking becoming more frequent and problematic, fears are that internet-connected toys are open to infiltration, especially if they are connected to other devices in your home, such as appliances and a computer system. Hello Barbie has already been accused of violating the right to privacy for children under the age of 13.
With the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, due for release on December 16, you might be nagged to buy a franchise-related toy and – unsurprisingly – there is already an AI toy available: the cute, spherical droid BB-8.
This droid toy can be controlled by an app, or simply set on “exploratory mode”, in which case it will roam aimlessly around your house.
However, BB-8 has an adaptive personality that changes, based on your child’s interactions. It can show a range of “expressions” and react when given voice commands. Responsive toys, it seems, will soon top Watson’s wish list.
Perhaps this Christmas, just stick to Star Wars Lego. It’s currently outranking BB-8 – for now.
Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com. Join him on Metro FM tomorrow at 6.30am when he unpacks these trends on the First Avenue show
PLAYTHINGS THAT KNOW THINGS Star Wars’ new BB-8 toy droid (far left) and Hello Barbie (left) can have intelligent conversations with children
Julius Malema and Nelson Mandela