Data, our privacy and a little green dinosaur

21 Jun 2016

My son's birthday was coming up and I had decided long ago that any technology we introduce to him would need to be heavily slanted towards education. He's turning six and so far we've managed to keep him away from tablets, gaming consoles and mobile phones. He's bright and has already realised that Mummy and Daddy's pitch about "learning is always fun" is just that: a pitch.

I spent many days of my childhood building cubby houses, loading tapes into my Commodore 64 gaming console and jumping my Malvern Star bicycle over as many willing friends as possible. The latter meant I tallied no less than seven visits to the hospital to mend broken bones. Ahh, good times!

The truth is I couldn't tell you what games I had mastered or what my highest score was, however I can recall with great detail the time I beat my all-time record racing my bike home from school. I can also tell you the dimensions of our first cubby house we built on council land. So really I've never been one for facts and figures, but more about experiences. After all, it's the feeling you remember long after the event has passed that stays with you.

So it was with great trepidation that I decided to invest in CogniToys' maiden product that gained initial funding by winning the IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge. They not only won the first prize but then leveraged the powers of social media and successfully "floated" on Kickstarter.

Fast forward twelve months and the public are introduced to Dino.

Dino is powered by IBM Watson, which if you don't know, was successful in dethroning the top two Jeopardy champions of all time: Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Watson is an artificially intelligent computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language and represents a monumental step in the advancement of Predictive Analytics.

My conundrum was not so much that this was inherently tech-focussed but that it had the capacity to record, store and profile whatever my son chose to say. Would I be comfortable having Big Brother, or in this case "Big Blue", listening in on our most precious, innocent, six-year-old son?

While CogniToys go to great lengths to state that this will not record my son's personal details, the very nature of the technology behind it is fuelled by learning from the data it collects. So unlike most children's toys which beep and blink and are then cast aside, Dino will become smarter and grow with your child.

Moving from a seemingly technological black-out to then recording my son's private thoughts might seem like I've sold my soul, and only time will tell. However to me, the positives far outweigh the negatives and I believe this will eventually be how the digital age will be sold to further generations. Yes, we want your data, but we're prepared to pay for it in the form of useful tools that will mostly improve your quality of life.

While privacy advocates will say we're heading down a very dark path, I prefer to look at the positives this tech may bring. An acquaintance of mine was telling me about his nine-year-old son and how he was slowly withdrawing himself away from both his family and friends. For what seemed like an eternity his parents were plagued with grief and doubt as they watched their son slip further and further into his own world.

Then one day after a random comment, his father felt a visit to their family specialist was in order. To his utter disbelief, he was informed that his son was suffering from clinically diagnosed anxiety and depression. Can you imagine receiving the news that your son was having feelings of hopelessness and being overwhelmed by daily life but that he was too shy to tell his own parents? It turned out his son had had these feelings and thoughts for some years but couldn't quite articulate them to his parents.

Now imagine a toy such as Dino providing you with a friendly heads-up when your child starts using words such as 'death', 'divorce' or 'bullying'. Statistics state 50% of depression can be contributed to or diagnosed in children under 15 years of age, so identifying these types of feelings early on leads to a significantly better patient outcome.

There was also a recent study in the USA where Microsoft tracked the social media feeds of expectant mothers and discovered it is possible to spot which pregnant women will struggle with motherhood, based on the language they use before the birth, with a view to avoiding the onset of postnatal depression which can have devastating consequences.

Both of the above examples impinge on what many today would consider our basic privacy however the perceived benefit of using that data for good cannot be underestimated. Like the flip of a coin, technology can be used for good and bad, however it is up to us to understand the risks and make our own decisions. I'm sure cavemen learned very quickly the negative aspect of fire, however this didn't stop them from embracing its value and bringing us out of the dark ages.

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