Move over, Winnie the Pooh: There’s a new bear in town, and all he does is “Think, think, think.”
Artificial intelligence (AI)-powered “smart” toys have gained a fair bit of market share in recent years — and perhaps a disproportionate amount of media share, as security concerns (both real and imagined) began to surface around smart technology. Parents worried that smart toys were spying on their kids, and, in some cases, they weren’t wrong.
Those concerns were top of mind for Mishka AI Co-Founders Svetlana Zakharenkova (CEO), Andrey Teslenko (COO) and Ibragim Mukhiev (CFO) when the company developed its interactive plush bear, which doubles as an entertaining play toy and educational device — a connected toy, yes, but only when parents want it to be.
The bear’s primary function is to tell stories that can be downloaded daily via the linked mobile app, but parents can also buy educational features and bundles to teach letters, numbers and basic math or spelling skills through a subscription model, Zakharenkova said.
According to Zakharenkova, selling the value proposition was the easy part. Parents are starting to realize that too much screen time (as little as 30 minutes a day) can cause an addiction for small children and can also damage speech, social and emotional development. Naturally, they don’t want their kids spending too much time on tablets — or in some cases, any time at all.
Zakharenkova noted that’s a drastic shift, as more than half of toddlers aged two to three years have their own dedicated tablet. Building chips into soft toys can help parents avoid exposing their children to tablets until later in life.
Mishka AI’s role is to provide the chip and content platform. Zakharenkova said Mishka is working to establish a partnership with a toy manufacturer to build the plush part of the product around the company’s smart AI functionality. The platform will include basic, limited content with options for parents to add on subscription or bundled purchases, she said.
But learning doesn’t stop at ABCs and 123s, Zakharenkova said. The bear could be used to issue reminders to children as parents see fit — for example, prompting kids to wash their hands, say “please” and “thank you” or brush their teeth. It can also carry a message from parents who are away from home, to be delivered at a set time.
Finally, Zakharenkova said Mishka becomes an educational partner as the bear interacts with numerous smart objects that contain NFC cards, which the company plans to introduce as accessories with the toy.
Zakharenkova explained that the business proposition boils down to treating learning as a game and having reminders or lessons come from something the child sees as a companion or friend rather than a teacher or parent.
What makes Mishka different from other smart toys is its emphasis on data security, said Zakharenkova — yes, even for small children. She said the toy only connects to the internet once a day to download new stories, which is done automatically. As soon as the content has been added, the internet connection is terminated until the next day’s download session.
That way, the toy is not connected all the time, essentially eliminating the possibility that nefarious players could be listening in on children or households, Zakharenkova said.
On top of that, the microphone is a separate device (embedded in a bowtie, for instance) so that parents can decide whether they even want voice recognition to be a feature. If security remains a concern, or if parents simply don’t want the child interacting so intimately with an inanimate object, then that feature can be left out without sacrificing the educational value of the toy, Zakharenkova said.
If parents want to download specific content on the spot, they can connect via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, she added — but otherwise, Mishka is a fortress against potential hacks purely due to its mostly offline nature and functionality.
Zakharenkova said the company envisions an educational ecosystem developing around Mishka in which curriculum writers and software developers can participate to each one’s benefit. With a developer toolkit, anyone with educational content could tailor that content to Mishka AI’s technical protocols and upload it to the cloud, where Mishka can verify and add it to the platform.
Thus, said Zakharenkova, Mishka becomes more like a channel, while creators and developers receive royalties for their content. And there’s room for plenty of ideas, she added — books that the child can hold, whose pages he can turn, while the bear reads to him, are just one idea that the company is now exploring, she said.
Parents sometimes feel that creators of smart toys are trying to replace parents with artificial intelligences, but Zakharenkova and Teslenko said it’s the opposite: Mishka becomes a tool just like any other toy, except this toy happens to be smart.
“Every family is different,” Teslenko acknowledged, “but when they see how we shape the content, they realize we aren’t pushing ideas they wouldn’t approve. Our goal is not to separate families, but to connect them — we’re giving them tools because parents don’t always know what to do with small kids.”