A matter of control

Jelmer Kingma

 

It is sunny outside, Lena is heading to the beach with some friends in her self-driving car. She only has to say the address to the dashboard computer and the car does the rest. On their way to the beach they play a game of cards, not paying any attention to the traffic around them at all.

Koen is crossing the street and is paying more attention to his phone than to the traffic around him. Lena’s self-driving car is approaching him at a high speed and collision seems unavoidable. Surprisingly, Koen is not harmed in this situation. The autonomous car spotted him several meters down the road. The safest solution to the situation was calculated by the car within a microsecond and could therefore easily come to a halt, avoiding danger. The scenario with Lena and Koen is just one of many that could be seen in a future where autonomous vehicles are used. It all depends, however, in what form we will see this technology in the future and what pathways we have chosen for the implementation of self-driving cars.

The goal for self-driving cars is to run on a complicated system of cameras, software and sensors. The machine scans its complete surroundings multiple times every second and is always aware of the location of other cars due to a connectivity cloud. Based on the maps constructed by technology in the selfdriving car and the connectivity network, in combination with complex algorithms and carefully calculated protocols, the car can drive in public. Currently, the technological capability allows for semi-autonomous cars, meaning the chauffeur still pays attention to the road at all times, and takes over the wheel when needed. Should we give such a technology with the capacity to harm humans the authority to make its own decisions in public? However, one could also ask: should we give inconsistent, careless and disinterested humans that same control over automobiles in traffic? Currently the answer to the latter is ‘yes’, humans chauffeurs are in control over driving their cars. This fact results in 95% of traffic accidents being caused by human errors. This rate is expected to reduce to almost zero when self-driving cars are implemented in traffic and it could saving many lives.

There are four predicted future scenarios and possibilities of self-driving cars analysed by the Dutch Knowledge Institute for Mobility. The first scenario, called “mobility as a service: any time, any place”, is based on public transport. Self-driving busses can be easily ordered via a smartphone application and show up anytime and anywhere you want it to be. Users of this service would just have to pay for the time they used the service, and that’s it. Less people will own a car since self-driving busses offer the same benefits and take away the disadvantages. The drawbacks of owning a car such as the cost for car maintenance, paying your monthly insurance fee or the need to always find a parking space will be eliminated.

Another scenario is the “fully automated private luxury” option. If you don’t have to drive anymore, everybody in the car has the freedom to do whatever they want during the journey. People`s cars are their own luxurious palaces which can serve them in every need. Therefore, making it highly appealing to own your own car, since it literally offers limitless opportunities for its inner design. Private car ownership is highly valued in society.

In the “Letting go on highways” scenario people still have to drive manually in busy cities because the infrastructure and selfdriving car technology is not advanced enough yet. Furthermore, people are not ready yet to fully let go of driving control. However, only on the highways, they do lift their hands of the steering wheel and let the car take over. They trust the self-driving technology because it’s easier for an automated vehicle to maneuverer on a highway than in a busy city. Owning a car is also still highly valued in society.

Finally, the “Multimodal and shared automation” scenario has the same level of trust towards the automated vehicle and technological advancement as the “letting go on highways” option. Only, instead of owning a car, the sharing of one vehicle with multiple people has become the new value in society. People can divide all car related costs, and with the help of smart cloud scheduling software, can still use the car whenever they want.

All the scenarios mentioned above will make traffic much safer than the current situation on our roads. The “fully automated private luxury”, however, will be the safest since all traffic will be self-driving. Combining this with the new option to create your own pleasure palace inside your car make it sound even better. An almost 100% safe traffic situation were every car is completely customized to the needs of each individual in which one can do whatever he wants. Doesn’t that sound great? Unfortunately, before this can be realized, we need to be ready to outsource driving control to a cold and heartless machine. Currently we have not reached this point yet, but I think eventually the pros of self-driving cars will overcome the cons.

Mobility as a service

Nora Vilde Aagaard

 

– Do we have to choose between privacy and sustainability?

Imagine you are waking up on a normal Tuesday. You pick up your phone to check the news as usual. A notification is blinking, and you learn that your train to work has been cancelled. You know that you can take the bus, but you also know that the bus takes 30 minutes longer and will make you late. Luckily, your mobility app tells you that a cab is nearby, ready to pick you up. And guess what? The cab is free!

What might sound like a dream is in fact reality. There must be a downside to this free cab, you may think, and not surprisingly, there is. In order to receive the free cab, you must give your mobility app access to your calendar and permission to save information about the trip you are about to take. Perhaps this does not sound alarming to you, but what if you knew that from the second you agreed to the “terms and conditions”, which nobody really reads, that you had actually agreed to let your mobility app collect and sell every piece of data about where you travel.

Our current mobility system, characterized by automobility, has allowed our whereabouts to be anonymous for decades. We get in our cars and drive without anyone having to know where we are going. Now, with the mobility system changing, what changes prevails and how these will affect our everyday lives is still unknown. The current tendency is characterized by a more centralized, shared transport, especially in cities.

The Finnish company, Mobility as a Service (MaaS), got the brilliant idea to combine different modes of mobility in the Whim app. Citizens of Helsinki now only need one app to use city bikes, public transport and carsharing services. MaaS´ goal is to become a global mobility provider, starting by expanding to the UK. By first glance, the Whim app appears genius. One single app to get access to public transport, city bikes, cabs and carsharing services. Also, the monthly price of the Whim services are lower than buying a monthly bus pass from the municipal public transport provider in Helsinki, HSL. This is possible due to the investors of MaaS, Toyota among them.

In order to use the Whim app, you need to give up a lot of your personal information. For the app to work properly, you have to allow the app access to your phone calendar and your current position (which also stores GPS information when the app is not in use). Also, Whim stores all information about your trips, ranging from mode of transport to where you are travelling from and where you are travelling to, and what date and what time of day you are travelling. Whim uses this information not only to plan your next trip, but also to target advertisements based on your whereabouts. Most of us have been accustomed to targeted advertisements and location storage from using other apps such as Facebook and searching Google. However, how and where we travel have up to now been our own business.

Putting the privacy issues a side for a moment, services such as MaaS can be seen as positive from a sustainability perspective. There is a broad consensus that our current modes of mobility are unsustainable. According to the Norwegian Environmental Agency, the transport sector is accountable for 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally. In Norway, the numbers are significantly higher. The transport sector is the largest emission source nationally, accountable for over 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Road transport, with carbon based private car use as the spearhead, is mostly to blame. One way to reduce emission levels from the mobility sector is to decentralize our system, thus reducing automobility and relying more on other modes of transport, such as biking, public transport and car sharing. Apps such as Whim who combine several modes of transport, planning our trips for us can make it easier to leave the car at home when we are going somewhere. But is what we have to give up worth it? In Norway, local companies are in charge of the public transport, owned by the local authority. In Oslo, Ruter, who I suppose most people in Oslo and Akershus are familiar with, are in charge of public transport. One solution could be to give them responsibility for other modes of transportation as well, such as the city bikes.

Are we located at a crossroad, where we have to choose between a sustainable transport sector and our privacy? Does a decentralized mobility system necessarily imply giving up our freedom to move anonymous? It is too early to tell. While our policymakers discuss who should be in charge of our future travels, MaaS continue to grow. Who gets hold of our mobility data in the future is too early to say, but the decisions are being made now.

Three from TIK

Emilie Margrethe Skogvang
Masters program: TIK
Graduation year: 2018

 

What was your thesis about?
I conducted a case study of the UN Women Blockchain Project to Empower Women and Girls in Humanitarian Settings. The thesis focuses on how the collaborative relationship between UN Women and blockchain companies evolves in a radical, high-tech innovation process, and what factors supports and constrains collaboration between the UN and the private sector in innovation.

What is your current occupation, and how do you use your background from TIK?
During the course of my masters I worked part time at Innovation Norway in a unit called NOREPS, which works with humanitarian innovation. After submitting my thesis I will start working full time in the Innovation Norway communications department. I will use my TIK background to communicate how
Innovation Norway can assist Norwegian start-ups and growth companies in innovation and development.

What is your best advice for new of
prospective students at TIK?
Apply for relevant internships and part-time jobs! I had an internship in the environmental foundation ZERO, and a part time job at Innovation Norway, which made the theories we learned much more applicable and understandable for me. The work experiences also helped me decide what I wanted to write about in my thesis. Writing for Teknovatøren is also valuable to get more writing experience. Oh, and also.. enjoy the ride!

 

Gard Nordby
Masters program: ESST
Graduation year: 1999

 

What was your thesis about?
I wrote about Innovation practices within the Norwegian Cluster for Oil and Gas. Basically, all innovation theory and literature on innovation at the time focused on product and technological innovation. I applied acknowledged innovation theory on three different cases within the Oil & Gas cluster: A pure helicopter service provider to the industry, a public regulator on the Norwegian Continental Shelf (NCS) and a leading technology solution/product provider. Even though the innovation process differed a lot, the theories were still quite applicable.

What is your current occupation, and how do you use your background from TIK?
I work as a management consultant within strategy and restructuring for Capgemini Consulting. My background from TIK/ESST is more of a foundation and perspective than being empirical know-how I can use on a daily basis. I do however work a bit in the interface between politics, public management and business performance, and the background from TIK and UiO proves valuable.

What is your best advice for new and prospective students at TIK?
Be curious and open. Raise critical questions and challenge conventional thinking. I sense that many students today (generally speaking) are too oriented of absorbing information, information that they believe will be useful know-how on the day of the exam. I would like to see more critical thinking, challenge of beliefs and creation of discourse. TIK/ESST should provide the set up for it – and it will improve learning and understanding for you and others.

 

Ingrid Paaske Gulbrandsen
Masters program: TIK
Graduation year: 2018

 

What was your thesis about?
In my thesis I used a combination of two theories/methodologies from the field of impact studies to examine the process where scientific knowledge is made applicable (and therefore enable social impact). My twist to the methodologies was to relocate focus from the interactions between researchers and stakeholders, onto investigating the importance of interactions between different
stakeholders in applying scientific knowledge to their practices. In my thesis I identified communication structures and tools for spreading knowledge effectively used by stakeholders to enable the usage of new knowledge. My case was the implementation of Individual Placement and Support in NAV, a scientific methodology for supported employment for people with severe mental illness.

What is your current occupation, and how do you use your background from
TIK?
I work as a consultant at Rambøll Management Consulting in the department of Social and Economic impact. My background from TIK combined with my former education has provided me with interdisciplinary perspectives and tools as well as a deeper understanding of innovation processes.

What is your best advice for new of prospective students at TIK?
Find a relevant job while studying. Remember that relevance in this case could be more important than salary in the long run. Other than that; build your CV – engage in Teknovatøren!

Black Mirror Trickery

Jørgen Tresse

 

Charlie Brooker’s often dystopian and technology-driven thriller series Black Mirror is a must-watch for anyone interested in technology and society, not least because we might already be living it.

Black Mirror, which airs on Netflix, is one of the most talked about shows the past couple of years. This is not just because it’s a well-written and well-directed show, but because it raises questions about our use of technology and where we are headed in a remarkably prescient and timely way. It shows us different, often dystopian futures where plausible technologies have gone wrong, and how it can augment the worst parts of the human psyche. If you watch the series, you might enjoy the entertainment, but ultimately write it off as just that, and that’s why this article exists. I aim to show exactly where we currently stand on some of the so-called Black Mirror-tech, and to which extent our world already is Black Mirror.

Technology: Creating or uploading a digital copy of your mind

As seen in: “White Christmas”, “San Junipero”, “USS Callister”, “Hang the DJ”, “Black Museum”

What it does: Variants on technology that creates digital copies of the mind are some of the most pervasive in the series, and so are lumped together. The copy has all the memories of the owner and is often under the impression that it is the original mind, and not a copy. In the series this opens up for ethically ambiguous and otherwise horrible scenarios involving torture, inhumane interrogation methods and enslavement of the copy.

Real-life comparison: While not at the point where we can copy our minds to a digital computer, or live a happy afterlife through our uploaded selves, attempts at finding ways to integrate our minds with computers are well underway. Perhaps the most prominent example is Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which aims at implanting a brainwave-reading mesh that will connect our minds to computers. But if this succeeds, will an eventual digital copy of us have the same rights as our physical selves? This is a technology that begs us to find an answer to the age-old question of what makes you you.

Technology: Killer robots

As seen in: “Hated in the Nation”, “Metalhead”

What it does: In “Hated in the Nation”, small robotic bees are weaponized and used to kill whomever is deemed necessary through online voting polls. In “Metalhead”, normal civilization has broken down as robotic “dogs” roam around and kill any people they encounter.

Real-life comparison: Autonomous warfare has been described as the third great revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear weapons. It’s easy to imagine that once warfare becomes effortless and for all intents and purposes free, we will see a lot more of it. So, look no further than the new videos from Boston Dynamics to welcome the ancestors of our future robot overlords. With robots that can do back flips or that look eerily like the killer dogs in Black Mirror, it’s hard to believe any argument that these will never be weaponized. It may be true for the time being, but remember that the U.S. military drones used in the Middle East were also initially simply surveillance drones.

Technology: Simulating the dead by analysing their social media profiles

As seen in: “Be Right Back”

What it does: An AI built to simulate the dead which the bereaved can talk to. It’s also possible to get an android that looks and acts like the deceased person.

Real-life comparison: While we don’t have androids to implant them in (yet), there have been several attempts at making chatbots which act like those who have passed. Eugenia Kuyda made a bot called Replika, which mimicked her best friend, while James Vlahos made a “dadbot” of his dying father. Furthermore, services such as Eter9 and Eterni.mi creates a digital counterpart of you either by scraping your social media profiles or through your interactions with them, so be aware that what you post on social media might determine “your” personality forever.

Technology: Surveillance of children

As seen in: “Arkangel”

What it does: Another implant, this one allows a parent to look through the eyes of their child and follow their every move from a tablet. Furthermore, the parent can censor sounds and images, so that they appear just as a blur to the child.

Real-life comparison: Again, the implant technology is missing from our life, but there are several quite comprehensive parental control apps that will do much of the same work, such as PhoneSheriff or Norton. These apps, in addition to giving real-time location updates, can control which apps are usable on the child’s phone, and for how long. Seeing as how much of young people’s lives are lived through their phone, this is probably the closest thing we have to Arkangel for the time being.

Technology: People rating

As seen in: “Nosedive”

What it does: Like rating restaurants on Yelp or movies on Netflix, people have a contact lens which allows them to real-time review others, and in turn be reviewed themselves. Rated on a scale up to five, your social score determines which reservations you can make, bank loans you can get, and modes of transportation you can take.

Real-life comparison: While there have been attempts at making apps for people rating, such as Peeple, the by far largest and most disconcerting instance of this technology is underway in China. Launched in 2016, and until 2020 voluntary to be a part of, the Social Credit System gives every citizen a score not unlike modern credit scores. Your score decides anything from whether you will receive a visa for travelling abroad to which schools you (or your children) can attend to where you will be allowed to live. While the algorithms it uses are not public, it’s reasoned that one of the factors which affect your score is not just what you say online and in public, but what your contacts say. Just imagine what Erich Mielke would have given for this technology. All the same, if you can accept that this happens in China – a country with a history of oppression and control – you would reflect on how many things we do now that were unacceptable just five years ago. The pressing question is not if China’s system can be implemented here as well – it’s when?

Black Mirror plays with a myriad of different technological possibilities, but the show is ultimately about human relations, actions and desires that are made possible – and worse – by technology. As all good dystopian fiction, it warns us of what may happen if we are not careful and aware of both the direction of technology and our own psyche. If we are able to do that, we may still stand a chance to avoid some of the worst possible scenarios painted in Black Mirror.

Spotify: The Story of a Limping Unicorn

Santiago Rufas Ripol

 

Spotify went public on April 3rd, 2018. Wall Street greeted the newcomer by mistakenly raising a Swiss flag to welcome the Swedish giant. More than a giant, Spotify has been referred to as a unicorn. In the financial world, a “unicorn” is a start-up valued at over a billion dollars and denotes a oncein-a-generation firm that has the potential to change the landscape of one or many industries.

However, change has been difficult for the music industry as it struggles to cope with disruptive technologies. After fighting piracy for over a decade, the focus has now shifted to streaming as the most viable path. That does not mean that there are no tensions going on between the music industry and streaming services such as Spotify. In its first ten years, Spotify’s achievements fall nothing short of mystical, but how well is the unicorn really doing?

Spotify may have saved the music industry by offering a valid alternative to piracy. To this date, Spotify has over 170M users and grosses $5Bn in revenues. In Norway alone, streaming accounted for 77% of music sales. But at what cost? In 2017, Spotify’s bottom line revealed a staggering $1.5Bn loss. To add injury to insult, a bunch of lawyers have decided to sue the company for $1.6Bn over a copyright dispute. Why is Spotify losing so much money? It seems that the unicorn is carrying the burden of pricey licensing deals that ultimately provide us with our favourite tunes whenever we want, wherever we want.

Spotify has continued to rock the world since entering one of the most brutal industries in the world in 2008. The unicorn is limping because the game is still on and as long as it runs, it will remain bloody expensive. Spotify has achieved step one: to offer a valid alternative to piracy. Not so long ago, piracy had made the music industry sleepless for almost a decade. One thing we learned is that the industry did not, does not and will not accept “free” access to music. After all, there are too many resources pooled into the production of music content. In 2018, the record industry is growing for the fourth year in a row, a clear sign that things are moving in a positive direction. While streaming gets credit for this surge, the foundations for its success were laid down in the turbulent age of piracy.

In order to better understand today’s context, we first need to look at yesterday’s events. While Spotify is one of the latest examples of how technology can disrupt an industry’s landscape, others have tried before. Only that most of them are not limping – they are dead. Chances are you have heard about Napster, a revolutionary peer-to-peer network that allowed users to share their favourite tunes online for free. Artists, labels and everyone except the users were horrified as they saw their music wandering freely on the net beyond the confines of copyright law. As revenues plummeted, the music industry engaged in a crusade against piracy, ultimately drowning Napster in a midst of lawsuits over copyright infringement. Hero or villain, Napster was made an example of. A precautionary tale to whoever dared to engage in piracy.

Today, many see Napster as a pioneer, a firm that existed before its time and for which the world was not yet ready. As most pioneers, Napster was slaughtered, but the idea of enjoying music whenever and wherever remained in people’s minds. Just like a restless ghost, piracy continued to haunt the music industry long after Napster’s death… until its reincarnation in 2008. Spotify can be seen as Napster 2.0, only that it has established collaborative stances vis-à-vis the music industry and remunerates creators. The unicorn appeals to both industry and consumers with its innovative business model and user-friendly platform. While streaming stopped the bleeding by providing a valid alternative to piracy, there are still many questions to be answered.

Today, we have more access to music than ever before. Digital technologies have opened Pandora’s Box and there are some disturbing signs moving forward. Increasing consumption has not yet fully translated into a “healthier” industry. Through 2017 Spotify said it has paid $9.8Bn to musicians, but the money does not seem to get there. Therefore, the question remains: where is all the money going? How can the music industry better adapt to disruptive technologies? While Spotify has managed to convert previous pirates – such as myself – into paying users, the issue of monetising streaming remains an urgent matter.

Today, the path towards a fairer, more sustainable music industry seems more viable than it ever. Users, technology and industry finally seem to be moving in the same direction. Unlike piracy, streaming allows us to enjoy our favourite tunes at our fingertips without undermining creators. After all, it is only fair that artists see the fruits of their labour. With the help of a unicorn, shouldn’t this be feasible? Spotify is certainly up for the challenge, but it cannot do so on one leg. The music industry remains reluctant to change, still unfit for the digital age and Spotify seems to be at the forefront of this tension between industry and technology. Things are getting better and if the unicorn continues on its journey, it should be able to heal its wounds and start leading the way full throttle towards a fairer, more sustainable music industry.

Balancing academia and business

Jørgen Aune

 

 

Helge Helguson Neumann

 

At TIK, the link between academia and business is important and works both ways. For the last seven years, Telenor and TIK have been partnering up to understand innovation. Teknovatøren had a chat with some of the actors from both sides to discuss cooperation between academia and firms.

Although there have been close links between universities and private sector for a long time, their explicit differences make it appear as though they exist on different planets. This impression might be tied to the perception that academics are working to discover new knowledge, while private companies are concerned with growth and profits. Different motivation leads to different working methods and routines. However, in today’s society, with digitalization, globalization and rapid innovation, academia and the business sector are partnering up for mutual benefits. One such collaboration is the 7-year long partnership between the telecom company Telenor and the research centre TIK.

Historically, Telenor has been closely connected to science. Before Televerket became Telenor, and before the modern Research Council of Norway was established in 1993, Televerket operated as the “research council” for the telecom industry. This tight connection between Telenor, and the research sector has been maintained in the last decades. “There is a tradition in Telenor to be a progressive company. To be innovative and reach new markets, you need to be able to absorb external knowledge. Thus, collaboration between universities and firms can be decisive for innovation” says Dagfinn Myhre, head of communications and external relations at Telenor Research.

Magnus Gulbrandsen, professor and head of the innovation group at TIK, has done research on collaboration between actors in systems of innovation. He argues that collaboration between universities and firms can be important within an innovation system, but it’s effectiveness depends on several factors. A key for a successful partnership is to recognize mutual benefits, differences, and potential tensions. “Trust is also important; it takes time to build and requires patience”. Gulbrandsen also highlights the importance of informal connections between the industry and academia. “There needs to be a balance, academia needs to prepare the students for what is expected to solve societal problems. At the same time, academia represents a neutral environment where it is possible to be creative and think long-term to a greater extent than in the private sector”.

This same understanding of balance is also present at Telenor, where there are discussions about the bilingual scientist: one that knows the language of both academia and business. Jarle Hildrum, head of service innovation and former researcher at TIK, has experience from both worlds. He also reflects on the importance of having an innovation-environment where you are able to see longterm. “There are many examples, also at Telenor, where new ideas and products have failed. But we still need to explore those ideas to keep innovating and growing”. Myhre adds that this idea of long-term exploring is important in academia as well. “Universities needs to build a good foundation. We need employees who have a generic competence. I don’t think business, or the academic communities prosper from too applied and short-term science”.

The success of Telenor the last decade has been a result of an innovative culture in the company. Myhre addresses the importance of individuals with an innovative mindset. “There has been an entrepreneurial culture with strong industry-oriented individuals who succeeded with Telenor’s international expansion. They know technology, but they also know markets and business. These individuals have been the engine of our growth.” This kind of culture is a significant ingredient in the creation of growth, but this culture also needs input. “We want to build up scientific communities we can work with, because we sometimes need to think differently and get new perspectives. For example, we can talk to TIK if we want to discuss and learn more about the understanding and measurement of innovation.” The collaboration between firms and academia creates a bond where the firm gets essential inputs, while the science institution gets valuable insight in how the firm works. Over time, this mutual understanding can give an even better cooperation as the two parts benefits from each other.

Individuals are important for the cooperation between academia and firms. Some scientific institutions only want to get the contract signed and to deliver a report in the mailbox at the end of the contract, while others are very interested in the firm and eager to discuss and have meetings. What kind of relationship there will be between academia and the firm often depends on individuals. “Personal relationships are essential for how fruitful the collaboration will be. The collaboration works best when individuals in academia really care about our challenges.” Myhre says. Maybe that is why the collaboration between Telenor and TIK has been so successful for the last seven years.

Playing with robots: When toys become intelligent

Kate Pashevich

 

Je suis de mon enfance comme d’un pays. – Antoine de Saint Exupéry

We all are formed by our childhood. As well as our bodies, our character and behaviour develop during the first years of life. A huge part of our early lives takes place in formal learning institutions like comprehensive schools, various clubs and thematic schools. What we often don’t realize is how much we learn outside of those institutions, informally. Usually it happens in a form of play, where we learn to communicate with the surrounding world and with other intelligent creatures. People are social animals, and social intelligence is crucial to develop in order to live a happy life. But what if social intelligence can be created artificially, for example, in “intelligent” toys?

Why toys?

What is the role of toys in our lives? It is inextricably linked with play, which is a very important activity, and not only for children. Huizinga even argued that play remains relatively the same among the majority of mammals, some birds and insects. In the human society, some forms of play are later transformed into our cultural and social institutes, like science, judicial system or medicine. Children don’t really need toys. In fact, there were no toys (or for that matter any objects specifically designed for children) before the late 18th century. Children used to play with each other, but he modern industrial society left children steadily more alone. This is when toys came to the scene: they help children learn and develop their imagination in the absence of adults and playmates.

Children tend to develop strong emotional bonds with some of their toys. Scholars talk about “transitional objects” – toys we take with us from childhood to the adult life. The majority of us don’t like to admit they still have that teddy bear, let alone acknowledge that somewhere deep inside, against all the rational arguments, we know: that bear is alive. Children psychologists heavily argue about what kind of toys children should have: Should they be simple or highly technological? Should we allow children to play with guns? And how would these toys influence children’s behaviour in the future? Probably, we should just ask children, what they want.

The market of AI toys

Today the market of children’s toys is full of “smart” or “intelligent” toys that can walk, talk, move objects and answer children’s questions. They are engaging and useful. However, there are several big questions regarding how these “intelligent” toys are being designed and regulated. Some of them are on the surface: privacy and security issues. Norwegian Consumer Council (Forbrukerrådet) last year launched a campaign against “interactive” toys (“My Friend Cayla” and “i-Que Intelligent Robot”), pointing out they’re not very well thought through design: these toys recorded children’s talk, and there were no clear guidelines regarding how this information is being stored and transmitted. As a result of the #ToyFail-campaign, the doll “My Friend Cayla” was taken off the market in Germany in 2017. This is a good example of how industry is always moving faster than the regulation. At the same time, strict regulation can hinder innovation. In order to prevent such events from happening, designers should consider not only their commercial interests, but also the interests of their customers. In this case, children. What is good for them?

Simulated intelligence

Robotic toys are now even able to possess certain personalities, like the Cozmo robot, which sometimes refuses to do his tasks and gets angry. While gaining more and more social intelligence these toys can lure children into thinking they are communicating with a living thing. Sherry Turkle in her book “Alone together” raises a question of how differently children perceive objects with artificial social intelligence. She writes about her daughter for whom a robotic animal was just as “real” as a living one. The experiment at MIT Media Lab, where children were observed and interviewed while playing with different “intelligent” toys, showed that children perceived these toys as “friends” or “teachers”, and thought of them as having various personalities.

What does it take for children and for us to be tricked into thinking a machine has intelligence? One of the pioneers of the field of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing, was occupied with this problem. He suggested a test or the “Imitation game” (later called the Turing test), where a machine, without being seen, only by answering the questions, needed to trick the human interrogator into thinking that it was a human too. Today, there is a whole field in computer science studying the design of socially intelligent agents (SIA). By “agents” they mean algorithms that are not just passive “tools”, but which possess a certain “agency”. The authors of the book “Socially Intelligent Agents. Creating Relationships with Computers and Robots”, Dautenhahn, Bond, Cañamero and Edmonds say that, since there exists no known “objective intelligence” outside of the experience of a human observer, the task for the designer is more to make it “seem” intelligent rather than to recreate an actual intelligence. Which makes the task much easier, but creates a major ethical concern: when we interact with SIAs, are we always aware that they simply simulate intelligence? And, in our case, do children understand that while playing with such a toy?

Effect on children

How do children perceive, interact and communicate with toys that steadily become more intelligent? The current research shows that children still prefer playing with their human friends to playing with any kinds of toys. Can this change? Will we come to a point where “intelligent” toys will replace living playmates? Another important question with such toys is: what kind of effect they have on children’s learning about the world? These toys are permanently connected to internet and can retrieve any recorded knowledge, but how do they deliver this information to children? Again, a question to their designers. Last but not least, how will the presence of robots from the early days of our lives influence our perception of real and simulated feelings and emotions? Play is a tricky thing: when we play we do realize that it is just a play, yet we are serious about it. If we don’t take the play seriously, it easily falls apart. With “intelligent” toys, will children still be able to draw a distinct line between play and real life?