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Cognitive computing: Talking toys will shape education

This article appears in the issue June 2015 [Volume 24, Issue 6]
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Talking toys have been around for a while. The animatronic bear Teddy Ruxpin debuted in September 1985. He moved his mouth, opened his eyes and told stories that were played from an audiotape cassette deck built into the toy’s back. Teddy Ruxpin was distributed for 20 years.

In 1998, another talking animal entered stage. The Furby was a mythical beast that blended body parts from a mouse, a cat and a bat. The toy offered rudimentary communication. Sensors monitored its direct environment. It got a rough understanding of what was happening. And it also possessed a vocabulary of about 800 words. Nevertheless, communication was still one-way based on canned recordings, even if the child imagined there was conversation.

More than a decade later, in spring 2014,theiconic Barbie doll, first introduced in 1959, debuted as a game changer. She had remained deaf and dumb for decades. But now startup ToyTalk presented an immersive link to Apple’s Siri. Barbie became WiFi-connected (while her legs functioned as a battery storage). And with the help of Siri, she delivered a more real-life interaction with young users.

But Barbie’s capabilities still remained limited. Her words were pre-written by humans. Conversations between the doll and children were permanently collected and analyzed by humans who decided which responses to create. Actually, ToyTalk foraged for a human-curated collection of a child’s likes and dislikes and would incorporate those into future conversations. Not really smart communication in real time.

A talking t-rex

The most recent advance in the trajectory from imaginary friend to cognitive toy is from Elemental Path. This year the company introduced a plastic dinosaur called Dino that outperforms its predecessors by orders of magnitude. The toy seems to have a mind of its own, initiating and maintaining interactive dialogues. And Elemental Path positions Dino as a way to revolutionize children’s education.

“You can ask it a plain-English question and get a plain-English answer back,” said JP Benini, co-founder of Elemental Path. Powered by IBM’s Watson, the device uses natural language processing and proprietary voice recognition software to converse with children in a natural way. The idea was pretty straightforward: The child speaks, and Dino, which is connected to the Internet and supported by a rich knowledge domain, listens and responds to it accordingly. Elemental Path claims that the appliance is capable of learning a child’s personality traits and preferences (e.g. favorite color) and then delivers age-appropriate content for their interactions.

The talking t-rex is a first glimpse of a future where so-called cogs (digital devices that are cognitive-enabled) will challenge our core ideas on education and training. What does it mean when toys make a quantum leap from passive, unresponsive devices to active, proactive assistants? Will it spur or inhibit imagination? Teach or just amuse?

Proximal development

With Dino, we can foresee the arrival of a phalanx of highly intuitive machines for education. They will eliminate one barrier to providing educational content by means of a digital channel: insufficient computer literacy. As long as you can speak, you can use these devices. The dinosaur actually pretends to understand what a user does, what he thinks, what his personality is. The devices gradually learn from their legacy of interactions to fuel future dialogues. The user and the machine create a shared history of experiences.

What is unknown is the educational impact that such cognitive toys might have. In 1978, Lev Vygotsky defined the zone of proximal development as “the distance between the actual developmental level ... and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.” Could these animatronic toys enhance or even take over the role of the adult?

The dramatic improvements in cognitive tool capabilities might also redefine the role of the teacher. We have seen cognitive systems assuming the role of content compendium and intelligent digital assistant in various applications. Soon, the task of content delivery will be provided by devices that rival the volume of the Library of Congress. Perhaps these toys will provide much needed individual attention to students, and they might also assume some of the routine tasks of monitoring an individual’s progress. That might free teachers to concentrate on real pedagogy—teaching, enriching and mentoring their students.

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