Time for a radical shake-up

Piecemeal change is not enough. The real need is still for a sustained, systemic shift to entirely n

Most people now accept that there is a major crisis in the world's natural climate and that it's got something to do with how human beings have been behaving for the past 300 years. In the interests of industrialism, we've looted a selection of the earth's resources and imperilled all of them. One climate crisis is probably enough for you. But I believe there is another one whose origins are the same and whose consequences are equally perilous. This is a crisis of human resources.

The evidence is growing that we are systematically wasting the talents and the sensibilities of countless people, young and old and that the social and economic costs are immense. Education is at the heart of the problem. Why is this and what are the implications?

Governments everywhere are busily trying to reform education systems. This is good but it is not enough. The real challenge is to transform them.

There are many attempts all around the world to do just this. Some of these are coordinated by networks of educators, like the International Network for Educational Transformation; others, as in the UK, by government agencies like the Innovation Unit, by private philanthropy like the Paul Hamlyn and Gulbenkian Foundations, by independent think tanks such as the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), and by specific programmes like Headteachers into Industry.

Transforming education means questioning some of the basic features of education that are often taken for granted. One of them is the distinction between academic and practical education.

Current systems of mass education are an awkward hybrid of 18th-century cultural aspirations and 19th-century economics. They emerged in the 19th century to meet the demands of the new industrial economies. Those demands had a profound effect on the organisation of mass education. But the culture of education was moulded by the intellectual preoccupations of the Enlightenment. These two forces, the one economic, the other a view of the mind, have often been at odds with each other. Over time, the tensions between them have buckled and distorted the systems they created.

Organisationally, education systems were not only developed in the interests of industrialism but in its image. For example, they are front-loading. They focus on young people, purportedly to prepare them for something that happens to them later. They are based on standardised curricula and systems of assessment that promote conformity not diversity. They are linear, with students grouped by age, progressing through the system in batches. It seems the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture.

They are also driven by assumptions of economic utility. This is one of the reasons for the hierarchy of subjects in schools: maths, languages and sciences at the top, the humanities and the arts near the bottom. Teaching beyond primary schools is based on the division of labour among separate specialists. To this extent schools function something like assembly plants. I could go on.

The organisation of mass education may be modelled on industrialism, but its intellectual culture owes more to the Enlightenment. Ironically, although public education emerged to meet practical, economic needs, it is rooted in a view of the mind that venerates theoretical knowledge over its practical application. The hierarchy of subjects is based in part on assumptions about economic utility. Students are often steered away from arts courses, for example, on the basis that they won't get a job as a musician, artist, writer or dancer. But there is another force at work.

On the whole, students are not discouraged from doing mathematics on the basis that they won't find work as mathematicians. This is because our education systems are dominated by particular ideas of academic intelligence. Students are divided into sheep and goats on that basis. The other abilities of many students are stifled or squandered. This is why some of the smartest people in the country passed through the whole of their education thinking they weren't. At the heart of the system is an intellectual caste system, which is educationally bankrupt, economically inadequate and culturally corrosive.

Transforming education means thinking in radically different ways about human capabilities and acting differently to cultivate them. This was the essential message almost 10 years ago of All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education, the report I chaired for the UK government. Although at the time the government's embrace of the report was less than rapturous, the principles it promoted have been surfacing in bits and pieces in national educational initiatives ever since. But piecemeal change isn't enough. The real need is still for a sustained, systemic shift to entirely new styles of education.

There are three main processes in education: the curriculum, which is what students are meant to learn; pedagogy, which is how learning is facilitated; and assessment, which is how judgments are made about progress and achievement. Transforming education involves all of these. At the heart of this movement there has to be a sharper understanding of what really motivates people to learn at all and of the multiple talents through which human beings thrive and communities prosper. It means a shift from conformity to diversity, from standardisation to personalisation and from a hierarchy of subjects to a genuine ecology of talent.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to be given the Benjamin Franklin medal by the RSA. The RSA was founded in 1754, at the height of the Enlightenment and in the early days of industrialism. Franklin was one of its early members. An inventor, entrepreneur and political visionary, he was always the first to question what other people took for granted. The systems of education that emerged from that period may have been right for their times. They are wrong for ours. Reinventing education for the 21st century means challenging assumptions that too many people take for granted now. If he were living in our times, I've no doubt that Franklin and his kind would be leading the charge for change.

Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognised leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources. He has worked with governments, international agencies, Fortune 500 companies, not-for-profit corporations and some of the world's leading cultural organisations. His new book, The Element: A New View of Human Capacity, will be published by Penguin in February 2009

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

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“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

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As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.