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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ennis

Eye on AI - July 16th, 2021

Welcome to Aigora's "Eye on AI" series, where we round up exciting news at the intersection of consumer science and artificial intelligence!


This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at the benefits and future applications of e-textiles and smart underpants (yes, those smart underpants!), then shift gears to address growing data privacy concerns with smart toys.


Smart Underpants Get to the Bottom of Health Concerns

Move over, wearables! Smart underpants, the latest development out of e-textiles, may soon be putting all those smart wearable devices you’re familiar with to shame. In the Forbes article “Smart Underpants: A New "Brief" In Health Monitoring”, futurist Bernard Marr gives us his latest take on smart underpants, which he says are positioned to become one of the most reliable and effective ways to detect and prevent health issues.

“Underwear is a good choice for a smart garment because it makes consistent, close contact with the body – a must-have for continuous skin sensors,” writes Marr. “Myant’s underwear innovations fit into the larger trend of e-textiles and smart clothing, powered by artificial intelligence and tiny semiconductor technology. Scientists are replacing clunky health monitoring devices like watches and chest straps with comfortable smart garments.”

The smart underpants were developed by Myant Inc., a leading wearables innovation hub, and use biometric sensors embedded directly into Myant’s SKIIN brand fabric to read body metrics in order to measure things like sleep quality, activity, stress level, temperature, and electrocardiography (ECG)*. That data can then be shared via an app to your smartphone or even your primary care doctor.

E-textiles, of which smart underpants are a part, are comparable to other wearables in their measuring capabilities at the moment. But they’re getting smarter. Researchers are working to develop future versions that can do things like assess an athletes performance and deliver small shocks to underperforming muscles, monitor fatigue and wake up sleepy drivers, temporarily disable the smartphones of couples when they closely interact for more intimacy, connect to home smart devices to do things like turn up the heat when your body is cold or pump the A/C when you’re hot, detect unnoticed physiological deficiencies, and more.

“The number of potential applications and markets for e-textiles is vast, including military and space, automotive, haptic suits for virtual reality, sports and fitness, and assistive clothing,” continues Marr. “IDTechEx's latest report on this emerging market, ‘E-textiles and Smart Clothing 2020-2030: Technologies, Markets and Players’, predicts that the industry will be worth over $1.4 billion by 2030.’”

With a near-infinite amount of potential applications, it should come as no surprise that e-textiles are positioned to be among the highest-grossing fabrics of the future. These are exciting times for smart fabrics. I’m curious to see what other companies emerge as leading e-textile producers.

Will Smart Toys Be the “Big Brother” Devices of the Future?

While smart underpants are indeed innovative, like any new data collection device they’re almost certain to face data privacy pushback, and for good reason. AI providers haven’t exactly shown the best judgement when it comes to data collection and sharing practices (here’s Slate’s ‘Evil List’ for context, though I certainly don’t agree with all of these). Even smart toys, which use AI to help kids develop, have a checkered data-sharing past.

“Between 2014 and 2017, a toy company named Genesis Toys sold My Friend Cayla marketed as an interactive doll that could listen to and respond to kids,” writes CNBC contributor Mikaela Cohen. “The problem: it was recording its conversations with kids, as well as conversations with parents, siblings and anyone else around the doll, Bergeson said, and able to share the data with third-party companies.”

Smart toys need data to learn. Without it, they can’t get smarter, which is the whole point. They interact with children based on how they read the data coming in, and can alter teaching lessons or emotional interactions based on that data in real-time. Because of that constant interaction between a child and a smart toy, smart toys have the potential to create a near-perfect data profile of the children using them. And, as we have seen in a few select cases, manufacturers can potentially sell those data profiles to third parties, leaving smart toy children heavily exposed to AI manipulation for the rest of their lives.

Fortunately, not all smart toys are potential data spies. The ROYBI Robot, for example, creates personalized lessons to teach kids educational subjects like science, languages, and math, but collects its data into an account controlled by the parent or guardian, giving users instead of companies control over their own data.

There are laws against the collection of data in children. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) protects children 13 years and younger and their personal information on the internet from being taken without parental approval. Still, these sorts of laws won’t stop abuse. COPPA was in place even before My Friend Cayla and Hello, Barbi were developed. More needs to be done to protect the data privacy of our children. Because regardless of how you feel about smart toys, they’re here to stay.

“I don’t think any of us have any doubt that the world these children are going to live in is going to be a world that’s enhanced by artificial intelligence,” said Richard Gottlieb, CEO of Global Toy Experts, a toy industry consultancy firm. “Artificial intelligence is extremely important to society, whether we like it or not. It’s going to be progressively more important to play.”

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