All I want for Xmas

Don’t bother telling Santa what’s on your wish list. Su­per­com­put­ers al­ready know

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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 flux­ 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

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