It’s no secret Chinese students are enmeshed in one of the world’s largest-scale AI monitoring experiments. Thanks to a myriad of edtech “breakthroughs” in the past decade, monitoring devices have penetrated school walls: Ever-present cameras monitor behavior. GPS-enabled wrist watches are a popular gadget with parents. Affect recognition algorithms, said to boost attention, “read” an entire room of young faces in real-time, despite doubts about whether expressions reveal anything meaningful.

Last autumn, cameras—cleverly stitched onto table lamps—found their way into Chinese homes. Companies that led this effort included Czur and ByteDance. Both claim to solve a presumably under-addressed parent-child engagement conundrum: to provide “homework supervision, from afar (in Chinese).”

Opinion

Ted Mo Chen is a TechNode contributor and Beijing-based edtech entrepreneur. He focuses on industries that inform and inspire customers.

Developed in consultation (in Chinese) with thousands of families, the ByteDance device takes snapshots, livestreams, and boasts an extensive library of educational games and videos, offering 996-working parents automated childminding. You can even pay the company for a remote staffer to watch via lamp as your child studies. 

As an edtech veteran and developmental psychology enthusiast, I’m here to caution that these advertised “must-haves” intrude on household privacy and throw obstacles to self-directed, cross-disciplinary learning—essential skills for the Gen-Z generation in the workforce of tomorrow. Between the customers and the corporation, the interests of the latter are prevailing.

Interactive, helpful, creepy

Launched by ByteDance under a spin-off educational brand called Dali (“great strength” in Chinese), the T5 smart lamp has exceeded internal sales expectations, selling more than 10,000 units (in Chinese) in its first four months. You can tell ByteDance is bleeding money on their edtech hardware debut: At RMB 799 ($117) apiece, the lamp costs just one-third of a similar Czur device (in Chinese).

The Dali lamp includes two cameras. One points down at the table or desk surface to scan-capture homework imagery, giving parents a bird’s-eye view of the child’s current progress through a namesake app; the other camera, sitting atop an Android-powered control panel, faces in front of the child and records live during check-in video calls.

As well as touch-and-play homework games (video demonstration), the device comes voice-enabled to further pique the interest of its 4- to 12-year-old users. Following the wake-up phrase “Dali Dali,” the onboard digital assistant switches lights on/off, recites Li Bai poems, or pronounces English words.

On the Dali lamp’s screen, children see interactive homework games as well as a barrage of full-screen ads and push notifications. (Image credit: Review on Shenzhenware.com)

One of Dali’s spookiest features comes at an extra RMB 300 on the T5 Pro model: surreptitious photographing intended to catch a kid in an unscholarly posture. When “bad form” is detected, the lamp sends a voice alert and simultaneously preserves photo evidence. Three days’ worth of exposés are up for parental review.

This slate of features struck the industry peers I’ve talked to as a mix of creepy, helpful, and weird. Yet the lamp appealed to quite a few parents. This past Christmas saw Taobao’s top livestream-selling hostess, Viya, move 5,000 units in a single night. But as reviews and research demonstrate, if the Dali brand doesn’t drastically change course with its future products, these sales numbers had better taper off for the good of our kids.

Your child deserves alone time

The primary and middle students who are the Dali lamp’s end users already spend the majority of their time on structured activities. During an average night, homework takes about 2.82 hours, about three times the global average, according to a spokesperson for the mainland’s top political advisory body. Adding 10 hours in school where surveillance cameras flash unchecked, it becomes clear that, should these child-monitoring lamps be normalized, the up-and-coming generation will live a reality where in most of their waking hours, they are a target of electronic monitoring.

Following the lead of Mattel, a toy brand that pulled an AI-driven babysitter-cum-tutor in 2017, prominent US companies are having second thoughts about childminding tech in the face of backlash from parents, pediatricians, and politicians. A bit late to the party, Chinese regulators in September 2019 did publish rules to rein in invasive data collection of children under 14, though the vagueness of its wording would strike developers more as a strategic deterrence than specific guidance.

Further, consider the security risks posed by a front-facing, desk-level camera, most likely located in a child’s bedroom. What if the child is changing clothes? What measures will kick in if the WiFi-enabled device is hacked? What is ByteDance doing with all this personal data? The press release for the lamp, however, provides no details about how users’ privacy will be protected. And it’s not just the prying lenses we should worry about. Have we already forgotten that digital home assistants gained substantial notoriety in recent years for listening when they’re not supposed to?

Dali is appealing to parents, distracting to kids

As a society, we wish for our kids to create and lead with purpose. That’s why in contrast with lengthy in-class lectures, out-of-school learning is at best motivated by self-direction.  The lamp fails a child in that mission in the following ways.

The Dali lamp’s interactive assistant is likely to be a major distraction, early reviews report: Any time the lamp is on, what awaits a kid is dozens of animated cartoons to consume and a bombardment of push notifications. In response to some of the interactive quizzes, kids can post their own videos and tag them with calls-to-action like “please remember to follow me.” These homemade videos, which may feature the makers’ faces, are accessible to the entire Dali customer base.

In ‘let’s study’ mode on Dali home screens, children can upload their own videos for wide viewing. (Image credit: Ted Mo Chen)

“What’s the pain point they’re addressing here?” one dad, a former edtech hardware developer, asks (in Chinese) in an online review. “Is it increasing DAU [for the company]?… I’d slash 90% of the features onboard.” Then there are the multiple observational studies linking early childhood exposure to fast-paced media and increased screen time with attentional deficits several years down the line. So, to parents who intuitively assumed Dali could boost attention: throw that idea out of the window now.

For that matter, it’s time to move past the obsession with getting kids to pay attention. Neuroscience researchers now recommend not freaking out when our kids use their study time to drift a little, since we now realize mind-wandering actually induces the deepest level of big-picture thinking—just what future employees need when skills in identifying overarching patterns (as opposed to rote step-memorization) become vital for at-work success.

Self-direction doesn’t happen out of the blue, it needs active support and lessened control. Kids under intense scrutiny tend to follow the prescribed route to please the present-whenever-they-feel-like-it adults, instead of engaging executive function to take risks. If we truly detest addiction to screens as much as we say we do, and wish the mobile native generation some old-fashioned childhood leisure, then let’s not shove an omniscient interface in their faces. Instead, let’s free our young problem solvers at their desks to preside over expressive undertakings however they’d like: journaling, doodling, and creating other things that take their own pace and require serious solitude.

Moreover, constantly confronting two cameras placed one foot away is a recipe for personality distortion. The lenses’ presence cues children to behave based on “risk of punishment” instead of personal values, and drives teens to be “more secretive” about their lives. While Dali’s marketing team goes out of their way to assure you no such concern exists—“Every call requires mutual consent, you only see her once she picks up”—we know better: some of us can get quite suspicious should kids hit that decline button when our helicoptering scrutiny arrives. And, you know what the worst part is? The kids know better, too.

Beyond Dali quick fixes

“The lamp is one of three digital gadgets that all students have on their study table. The other two are the alarm clock and the bed-time story broadcaster,” an edtech entrepreneur familiar with the lamp’s development explained to me. “At its core, launching the product is a business decision.” Remarks from Louis Yang, the head of the Dali product team, back her analysis: “Hardware incurs a loss, but we’ll keep at it.” Why? “It’s the infrastructure for… future [paid] services (in Chinese).”

Before and after the Dali launch, ByteDance has pushed a steady stream of said services. One of those even does away with parents entirely: For ~RMB 599 a month, the company will assign a remote minder to “supervise [your] child in real-time” via the lamp for up to two hours on weekday nights. In addition to answering the student’s questions one-on-one, the tutor will also “promptly notify [him] if he’s spotted leaving the seat for long, or staring into the void.”

Foucauldian much? From now on, let’s look past an edtech giant wannabe’s quick-fix gimmicks and be wary of the long-term implications of heartless robotic care. Because at one point in their lives, our kids will no longer be “supervised” by machines: No more Alexa teaching them to say “please” after issuing requests, no more Google patents that aim to tip us off about their “mischiefs,” no more ByteDance lamps wooing them into solving quadratic equations. Home life is about preparing them for that day, isn’t it?

READ MORE: Edtech and Covid-19: It’s complicated

Ted Mo Chen

Ted Mo Chen is a TechNode contributor and Beijing-based edtech entrepreneur. He focuses on industries that inform and inspire customers. Ted holds a B.Phil. from Peking University.