We pressured Mattel to pull the plug on its “digital nanny” Aristotle. Here’s why.

The The Story of Stuff Project Community, together with our partners at Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, successfully pushed toymaker Mattel to cancel the planned release of its “digital nanny” device, Aristotle. The internet-connected device, which included a microphone and camera, was designed to live in a child’s bedroom from birth and be a constant companion as she grew up. Mattel boasted that Aristotle could “soothe” crying baby, help toddlers learn to speak, and facilitate learning in older children. They even said that they hoped children would form “emotional ties” with the device.

Here are the concerns that led us to demand that Mattel pull the plug on this alarming device:

  1. Internet-connected baby monitors are vulnerable to intrusion, and there are countless disturbing stories that prove the threat is real. Take this hacker who not only spied through a family’s baby monitor, but used it to talk to their child at night. Or, this family who woke up to a stranger screaming at their 10 month-old infant through their monitor. There’s even a search engine which indexes vulnerable webcam feeds, allowing users to peer into people’s lives without writing a single line of code.
  2. Mattel admitted that they don’t know how Aristotle would impact childhood development. Here’s what their chief products officer had to say on the topic: “Honestly speaking, we just don’t know. If we’re successful, kids will form some emotional ties to this. Hopefully, it will be the right types of emotional ties.” Mattel seems poised to use real kids as guinea pigs in an AI experiment with real consequences.
  3. Mattel doesn’t have kids’ or families’ best interests at heart. Mattel is a publicly-traded corporation with one responsibility: to maximize profit for its shareholders. To do so, Mattel would have squeezed value out of every interaction with Aristotle. That would have meant selling kids’ data to partners, or having the device advertise products directly to kids. Of course, that advertising wouldn’t sound like a regular TV commercial; it would have leveraged that data and the child’s “relationship” with Aristotle to create hyper-compelling messages. “This is not a toy in the classic sense,” said Kade Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “It’s a data collection device owned and operated by a for-profit corporation”
  4. A “digital nanny” is no substitute for a living, loving caregiver. Mattel said that Aristotle would soothe a crying baby with “nightlights, lullabies, and sleep sounds.” But pediatrician Dr. Dipesh Navsaria says, “a baby awakening in the night needs more than smoke-and-mirrors ‘soothing’ from a machine. They need the nuanced judgment of a loving caregiver, to decide when the child needs care and nurturing and when the child should be allowed to sooth themselves.” Mattel also said that Aristotle can read stories to your child. Pediatrics professor Dr. Robert Needlman isn’t convinced: “Story time is about much more than listening to someone read a book. The benefits of bedtime stories come not just from the stories themselves, but from the bonding ritual and emotional and physical interaction between parent and child.” Read more expert opinions from the Center for a Commercial Free Childhood.

These concerns are why we called on Mattel to pull the plug on Aristotle. Almost 18,000 members of our took action, singing a petition to CEO Margaret Georgiadis demanding that they cancel their plans to release the product. And just two days after we delivered those signatures, Mattel – a billion dollar company – announced that they were scrapping plans for the device. This is a big win for our Community – thank you for taking action with us!

This campaign goes to show how powerful we can be when we flex our Citizen Muscles together. It also points to broader conversations about our relationships with digital devices, the role of “AI” and automated technologies, and growth of surveillance capitalism in the 21st century. Although we were able to stop Aristotle, the trends that underlie it aren’t going anywhere. We’ll continue to shine a light on these concepts and stand up for common-sense solutions that put people and the planet ahead of corporate profit.

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