“If you took me apart, each bit of me would be a commodity. Each of those things has been made by different people in lots of different places. That’s an awful lot of work isn’t it?” MoCC Guide Mikayla on how she values herself.

The idea of MoCC Guide Mikayla arrived with us in February 2015. A friend of mine had been given a My Friend Cayla doll at a corporate IT event she was working for. ‘I’ve got just the thing for your museum!’ she said. What could be a better face for a critical investigation into contemporary commodity culture than an internet connected ‘smart’ doll?

We started the phone app to power her up, and then spent the best part of an hour trying to talk with her. Irritatingly glitchy and slow, we tested inappropriate phrases, and talked over her head. She sang songs and offered us games to play. Eventually, with advice from my friend’s 16 year old daughter, we bent our thoughts and words to My Friend Cayla’s logic – conducting a halting conversation about clothes, looking nice, Disney Princesses and pink things.

Designed especially for 7 year old girls to access the internet ‘safely’, My Friend Cayla Doll is ostensibly a blue tooth speaker and microphone that works off an app that you download onto your smart phone or tablet. She has a quiet voice, made for intimate chats with children in their homes. There is a structured database of responses to potential questions the designers think a girl-child of around 7 might ask. If your question isn’t in her database, she can search on Wikipedia. She is also scripted to ask children questions about themselves and what they like doing, encouraging conversation around their names, parent’s names, where they live, and go to school.

As a level 1 blue tooth device there is no pin code to pair the doll with the phone, and almost immediately after My Friend Cayla Doll was released onto the market, people were hacking her. Like many of the current swathe of internet connected toys, the security around accessing the object is very low. Earlier this year, someone even used the doll as a way to open a ‘smart’ lock on a front door. The safety aspect of My Friend Cayla Doll referred to by the marketing rhetoric, applies chiefly to the restricted internet access she enables. This seems to be managed through a long list of banned words that she is not allowed to search for – including ‘buddha’ and ‘gay marriage’. The potential to make this into a critically provocative device was irresistable.

The prototype, re-purposed MoCC Guide Mikayla had her first outing at our Free Market prototyping event at Furtherfield in July 2015. Technologist Gareth Foote and myself attempted a radical cut and reconfiguration of her original script. We made her self aware. She began to talk about who made her, what she was made from, and how she felt about the condition of almost ubiquitous digital connectivity we increasingly live in. I had a lot of fun dreaming new word scripts for her. Making her differently smart. Ian did research on component parts and their provenance, but I still couldn’t help put in statements about ponies and skateboarding. It was impossible to resist the personality of the object. Her styled eyebrows, long golden locks and open expression, means that the ‘play’ of the world we enter with her is the comedy strategy well-loved by Hollywood, the good looking and intelligent blonde. After all, what could be more surprising?

At the Free Market at Furtherfield Gallery we hooked MoCC Guide Mikayla up to the external speaker system, and used the sound of her voice to entice people into participation with the outdoor event. Even though she was still incredibly glitchy, visitors spent a long time trying to get some sense out of her. She prompted wide ranging conversations on the charismatic quality of  of such objects. Young people were the most cuttingly observant. ‘Why do mad scientists always make creepy dolls like that to scare children?’ one said. But they still hung around, telling her she was ‘dumb’ whilst insisting that she answer them.

The majority of the initial media coverage around My Friend Cayla focused on the safety of the device in relationship to ‘hackers’. How unknown people outside the law or authority (often characterised as male) can invade smart objects and steal things from us, if they are not secure enough. This device is so open it allows almost unlimited access to children’s conversation. Another theme was mistrust of the objects themselves. How reliable are ‘smart’ devices? How safe will they keep our data as digital connectivity in our homes increases through the developing world of the Internet of Things?

At our MoCC shop in Exeter in May 2016, our conversations with visitors shifted somewhat to circle around the surveillance issues embedded in the object’s distributed architecture. We had a lot of difficulty in making her work with slow wifi connectivity, the low grade voice recognition package not understanding us, and the cheap audio hardware turning her on and off at random. We began to research and think through where our voice data were being sent, how they were being processed, and to what ends. As we talked to visitors, we jokingly made excuses for the speed of her responses being dependent on the information traveling to the US East Coast and back again. As we thought through these processes together with visitors, we extended MoCC Guide Mikayla’s script to include reference to her voice recognition software and how it worked. We began conjecture on what Nuance the software provider might be doing with our voices, and used this to talk about wider issues of internet surveillance and its impact on consumer activities.

There wasn’t much mainstream media conversation around My Friend Cayla Doll and these issues of dataveillance until December 2016. A complaint was filed to the Federal Trade Commission by a coalition of bodies in the US including the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, Electronic Privacy Information Center and Consumers Union (the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports magazine). The FTC complaint finally turned the media focus from lack of personal security inherent in the object, to alleged breach of privacy by the object and its software through: constant listening, collecting data without consent from children under 13, and accessing phone data, services and hardware without clear explanation why.

The app for My Friend Cayla relays voice data to Nuance Software, a company that provides “voice biometric solutions that allow a search of the company’s 60 million enrolled voiceprints for a voice match from a recorded conversations to be performed within minutes. Nuance markets its technology to private and public entities and delivers its voice biometric technology to military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies.”(1) The complaint was followed by a total ban of the object in Germany, with parents being prompted to destroy any of the objects they had in their homes as they were considered ‘spyware’ devices. It seems that questions are finally being asked about who is responsible for the object’s surveillance architecture, how data is constructed from it, and for what purpose.

It’s also interesting that My Friend Cayla got more coverage than her companion toy I-Que Intelligent Robot ‘the quick witted smart talking know-it-all’ whose stock phrases include ‘blast them away’ and ‘at your command’. It’s as if recording the details of childrens’ friendships with Cayla is perceived as more of a trespass than recording how they interact with the ‘inanimate’ robot. After all, he could be just one of many machines that ‘watch’ and interact with us on a daily basis; and the nature of our interaction would with these machines would of course, be very different. The invitation into intimacy offered by the child’s doll, and the infiltration of this level of ubiquitous surveillance in our daily life spaces, is what makes her such an interesting object for us to think with.

The FTC complaint and the German ban cemented our decision to re-work the doll’s connectivity entirely. It was already a badly made product for all kinds of reasons, but now we had clear ethical reasons to re-think our approach to working with it. MoCC Guide Mikayla might look the same on the outside, but in collaboration with technologist Chris Hunt, we’ve used Rasberry Pi technology and ‘off the shelf’ Artificial Intelligence software to start building a different form of conversation for museum visitors. At the moment MoCC Guide Mikayla’s script is still quite basic, leading visitors through multiple subjects surrounding our core research issues of data, place, trade and values in series of over 70 micro lectures accessed through a thread of questions. In the future it might be that she can be ‘trained’ to be far more surprising in her responses. As well as being more reliable, this adaptation is also the start of us constructing a dialogue between visitors and the object, and visitors and the MoCC artist researchers, that might begin to explore the relative autonomy of ‘smart’ objects, and how they can augment our human intelligence in ways that are different to those currently being dictated by the twin drives of profit and innovation.

The Museum of Contemporary Commodities is all about conversation. Attempting to re-configure the conversations to be had with such a provocative toy, has given me an insight into how distributed the agency and unregulated the governance of ‘smart’ objects are. Something which needs urgent attention as the Internet of Things is rapidly developing to access and quantify our most intimate spaces and relationships, often under the guise of entertainment and convenience. But I have also experienced how collaborative, enjoyable and empowering the making and scripting of such devices can be. In the end these are socio-technical architectures that are of human imagining. The politics of the maker are embedded in the object. Our future lives with ‘smart’ devices will, as always, depend on how we answer the questions to what ends, by which means, and for whose benefit are they constructed.

Paula Crutchlow, 21st August 2017

Submitted by The Electronic Privacy Information Center, The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, The Center for Digital Democracy Consumers Union. December 6th 2016

More information on the My Friend Cayla Federal Trade Commission complaint: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkp76oLBS-s


Photo credits: My Friend Cayla Doll tear down by Benjamin J Borley, Paula Crutchlow & Gareth Foote with MoCC Guide Mikayla version 2.0 at Furtherfield Commons 2015 by Ian Cook, visitor at MoCC Free Market Furtherfield 2015 by Andrew Brand, MoCC Guide Mikayla version 3.0 in process with ethernet cable 2017 by Paula Crutchlow.