Consumer watchdog Which? has called on retailers to stop selling some popular toys it says have “proven” security issues.
Those toys include Furby Connect, the i-Que robot, Cloudpets and Toy-fi Teddy.
Which? found that there was no authentication required between the toys and the devices they could link with via Bluetooth.
Two of the manufacturers said they took security very seriously.
The lack of authentication meant that, in theory, any device within physical range could link to the toy and take control or send messages, the watchdog said.
“Connected toys are becoming increasingly popular, but as our investigation shows, anyone considering buying one should apply a level of caution,” said Alex Neill, managing director of home products and services at Which?
“Safety and security should be the absolute priority with any toy. If that can’t be guaranteed, then the products should not be sold.”
Hasbro, which makes the Furby Connect, said in a statement that it believed the results of the tests carried out for Which? had been achieved in very specific conditions.
“A tremendous amount of engineering would be required to reverse-engineer the product as well as to create new firmware,” it said.
“We feel confident in the way we have designed both the toy and the app to deliver a secure play experience.”
I-Que maker Vivid Imagination said there had been “no reports of these products being used in a malicious way” but added that it would review Which?’s recommendations.
Spiral Toys, which makes Cloudpets and Toy Fi, did not comment.
Other toys tested by Which? included the Wowee Chip, Mattel Hello Barbie and Fisher Price Smart Toy Bear – but these were not found to have serious security concerns.
Cyber-security expert Prof Alan Woodward, from Surrey University, told the BBC it was a “no brainer” that toys with security issues should not be put on sale.
“Sadly, there have been many examples in the past two to three years of connected toys that have security flaws that put children at risk,” he said.
“Whether it is sloppiness on the part of the manufacturer, or their rush to build a product down to a certain price, the consequences are the same.
“To produce these toys is bad enough, but to then stock them as a retailer knowing that they are potentially putting children at risk is quite unacceptable.”
More than half of England’s secondary schools, 54%, did not offer GCSE computer science in 2015-16, a report from the Royal Society has found.
It urged the government to increase spending on computer education tenfold over the next five years to ensure youngsters can “unlock the full potential of new technologies”.
The biggest issue was the lack of skilled teachers, the report found.
The Department for Education said more pupils were choosing the subject.
“We want to ensure our future workforce has the skills we need to drive the future productivity and economy of this country and that is why the government made computing a compulsory part of the national curriculum,” said a spokesperson.
“Computer science GCSE entries continue to rise more quickly than any other subject.
“We recently saw an increase in entries to Stem subjects [science, technology, engineering and maths] for the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and the number of girls taking Stem subjects at A-levels has increased by over 17% since 2010.
“Since 2012, the department has pledged £5m to the Network of Teaching Excellence in Computer Science programme, which has built a national network of nearly 400 computer science specialists (who) schools can commission to provide bespoke training for their teachers.”
Computer science in numbers
The number of schools not offering the subject at GCSE represented 30% of the total number of pupils in England
Across the UK, the report found that that only 11% of students in England took GCSE computer science
In 2017 only 20% of GCSE candidates in the subject were female and the figure fell to 10% at A-level
Bournemouth had the highest percentage of pupils (23%) opting to take computer science
Hartlepool, Harrow and Bracknell Forest had the highest proportion of school offering the subject at GCSE level, not including the Isles of Scilly which has a 100% rate as it teaches it at its only school
Two in three schools near the UK’s technology hub in East London, did not offer it to pupils as a GSCE option
Other London boroughs, including Islington, Kensington Chelsea, Tower Hamlets and the City of London also had a low proportion of schools offering the subject
The Royal Society, the UK’s independent scientific academy, is concerned about how the lack of computing expertise will affect the future workforce.
Prof Steve Furber, who worked on the report, said: “Computing teachers have told us that they feel the government rushed in a new curriculum without giving them the support or money to deliver it.
“The report paints a bleak picture in England, which meets only 68% of its computing teacher recruitment targets and where, as a result, one in two schools don’t offer computer science at GCSE, a crucial stage of young people’s education.”
He added that, “overhauling the fragile state of our computing education” would require an ambitious, multipronged approach.
The Royal Society called for:
A £60m investment in computer education over the next five years
The training of 8,000 secondary school computing teachers
by Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC News technology correspondent
This report highlights what some teachers have been telling me for a while – that the revolution in computing education in the UK has stalled.
Five years ago a head of steam built up behind the idea that children needed to be taught coding and that the ICT GCSE was not fit for purpose, teaching little more than how to use Microsoft Office.
The government responded by taking ICT off the National Curriculum and replacing it with computer science.
But this course is proving far more demanding of both pupils and teachers, and many schools have decided that it is just not worth the bother at a time when resources are tight.
Some ICT teachers who had always argued that it was a practical course, attractive to a far wider range of children, are now saying “I told you so”.
But across the world of computing education there’s agreement on one thing – more money needs to be spent on training teachers in this vital subject.
Prof Furber’s views were echoed by technology firms Microsoft and Google, who are both working to increase computer skills among schoolchildren.
Google’s UK managing director Ronan Harris said: “There is still much more to do to ensure young people across the UK have access to computer science education.
“Whatever school they attend or whatever field they plan to go into, every student should have the opportunity to understand the principles and practices of computing.”
And Microsoft’s UK chief executive Cindy Rose said: “The risk, if we don’t make these investments now, is that too many young people struggle to access new opportunities and the UK loses its advantage in a world being transformed by technology.”
Boeing kicked off the first day of the Dubai Airshow by announcing the first big sales news of the five-day event.
Emirates has ordered 40 Boeing 787 Dreamliners in a deal worth about $15bn (£11.3bn) at list prices.
The Dubai airline’s chairman, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, said the aircraft had been chosen over the Airbus A350.
He had been expected to announce a big order for the Airbus A380 superjumbo at the media briefing.
Airbus desperately needs more orders for the A380, the biggest passenger aircraft in the skies.
The Franco-German company and Emirates were understood to be in intense final negotiations to have an announcement ready for this week’s show.
Emirates, the largest airline in the Middle East, is already the biggest customer for Boeing’s 777, with 165 in service and another 164 on order.
Sheikh Ahmed said Sunday’s order raises the cost of its purchase of Boeing aircraft to $90bn. Some of the new 787s will be used to replace older planes, while others will be used to expand the airline’s network.
Boeing welcomed the deal, which Kevin McAllister, head of its commercial aviation division, said would sustain many jobs in the United States.
Deliveries of the aircraft are scheduled to start in 2022.
Also on Sunday, Azerbaijan Airlines said it was buying five Dreamliners, as well as two Boeing freighters, in a deal worth an estimated $2bn.
Amid the display of military hardware and the latest civil aircraft, it is the traditional rivalry of Boeing and Airbus that grabs the airshow headlines.
So far this year, Boeing has won about 65% of the new orders placed for aircraft globally.
Neither Emirates nor Airbus would comment on the status of the rumoured A380 order, which would help protect jobs at the aircraft manufacturer’s plant in north Wales, where the wings are made.
Emirates has been the biggest customer for the A380, having bought 142 of the almost 320 that are in service or on the production line. The last order for the superjumbo came two years ago, when Japan’s ANA purchased just three planes.
In July Airbus said it would again cut annual production of the A380 from 12 to eight. Two years ago Airbus was making 28 planes a year.
I’ve been nervously chatting to Lara on the dating platform Match.com for two minutes. She’s flattered me about my age (“so young!”) and she says she’s going to take care of me.
I like her already – but Lara is not real.
She – or rather, it – is a chatbot, an artificially intelligent computer program developed to communicate with people online.
The bot was launched in France in 2016 and then rolled out in the UK in April 2017, to help potential clients get started in their search for love by setting up their Match profile for them.
It was the first to be released by a major dating site and the firm claims that 300,000 people a month complete their dating profiles with help from Lara.
The chatbot is not a voice-controlled interface – you communicate by typing – but it can operate in 12 languages, asking users simple questions about what they are looking for and what they are like.
Experts say it can also encourage people to be more honest about what they really want, rather than write what they think others will want to see.
“The profile is the big hurdle [for the industry],” says Mark Brooks, a dating sector consultant.
“People don’t really want to create a profile, it’s not much fun.
“But if you are having a conversation with somebody they will be more willing. And if you can create a profile from a conversation it will probably be closer to the truth.”
Match says Lara boosted registration rates by 30%, and it can now also recommend matches based on user data.
While the bot isn’t supposed to break hearts, the chat is affable, friendly, informal. It asks friendly questions, you answer, and there’s a short, reassuring response before the next request for information.
Try to go off script, however, and you won’t get very far.
“How are you?” I asked Lara.
“Hello, hello,” she replied with a winking emoticon.
“Do you have any hobbies?” (I never said I was good at chatting people up).
“I don’t understand. Which gender are you?” she replied, giving me a choice of two buttons to press.
“Do you understand me?”
“Oops, your email address is invalid,” she responded, with a sad face.
Perhaps we’re not soulmates after all.
“[Clients] know it’s a bot, they are 100% aware they are not talking to a human,” says Xavier De Baillenx, innovation lead at Match.
“You have to engage users with the right tone of voice,” he adds.
“We tested Lara with no personality, Lara with jokes – and we found that having a personality can be more effective.”
The Match group has now also launched Julia, a similar chatbot for its over-50s dating site Our Time and Mr De Baillenx says there are more “agents” on their way.
But why aren’t there more of them in the dating space already?
Perhaps one reason is that people can be notoriously rude to bots.
Microsoft’s Twitter bot experiment Tay had to be disabled within a day when those who communicated with it taught it to be racist and misogynistic, and a popular Japanese app called The Boyfriend Maker was terminated when its virtual boyfriends started engaging in very lewd chat.
“I call this the ‘abducted by aliens’ problem,” said Ludwig Konrad Bull, MD of Elixirr, speaking at the recent iDate conference in London.
“You would never write on a form that you’ve been abducted by an alien. But for some reason, you’re more likely to say that to a bot.
“If you look at how similar a robot is to a person, the more similar the robot is to the person, the more empathetic that person is towards the robot, but right before the robot seems just like a person people start really despising it. People don’t want machines to be as intelligent as humans right now.”
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Mr De Baillenx says not many of Match’s customers try to do “weird things” with Lara.
But John Taylor, CEO of action.ai, believes chatbots aren’t yet mature enough for people to resist trying their luck – the language skills are just not there, as I discovered with Lara.
“A chatbot is about how you have a conversation with a business or a person who is not real,” he says.
“We want people to talk naturally to a chatbot and be understood. But the technology is not there today. We have technology which solves that problem but it’s not broadly available on the market.”
Xavier de Baillenx admits that the language side “is not so easy”.
“With Lara we spend quite a long time on understanding human language,” he says.
In future though, a chatbot could offer a lot more to the dating space than getting you started on your search for love – which could prove lucrative for those in the business.
“It’s a strange industry,” says Mark Brooks.
“If we do a good job we wave goodbye to our customers.
“There’s a lot we are missing out on by not helping people with their relationships once they have found that person.”
Whether people are ready to accept relationship advice from the likes of Lara remains to be seen.
“Maybe chatbots can be used to train people how to date. There’s a lot of psychology involved, best practice. It could probably give you tips and tricks,” says Srini Janarthanam from Chatomate, talking at at iDate.
“And if you don’t get to date anybody else, maybe you can date the chatbot.”
Apple has offered to help the FBI unlock the smartphone of the gunman who killed 26 people at a church in Texas last Sunday.
Devin Kelley wounded 20 others at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs and was later found dead in his vehicle, some miles away.
The FBI said his handset had been sent to its central crime lab, in Virginia, as local police could not unlock it.
Apple said it had “immediately” offered to help.
The company said it worked with law enforcement agencies every day and had trained “thousands” of officers about the best way to handle its devices and how to request information.
If Kelley had saved his phone data on Apple’s iCloud service, this too may hold information about numbers called, messages sent and pictures it was used to take.
Dead man’s finger
“It actually highlights an issue that you’ve all heard about before, the advance of the technology and the phones and the encryptions,” said FBI special agent Christopher Combs.
“Law enforcement, whether at the state or local or the federal level, is increasingly not able to get into these phones.”
However, there has been speculation the FBI may have missed an early chance to get at data on Kelley’s phone.
Apple iPhones locked with a fingerprint ask for a passcode only after they have not been unlocked for a 48-hour period.
And it is therefore possible the phone could have been unlocked by the dead man’s finger in the hours after his death, provided it had not run out of battery, or been deliberately switched off or rebooted.
One expert said the Harry Potter brand had the potential for similar success.
Publisher Warner Bros Interactive owns the video game rights to the Harry Potter series. It has previously developed Lego-branded tie-in titles via its TT Games subsidiary as well partnering with Electronic Arts to create action-adventures that launched alongside the movies.
Warner said Niantic’s Harry Potter: Wizards Unite was just one of several new games based on JK Rowling’s characters that are planned. They will all be released under a new label – Portkey Games – so-named because Portkeys transport wizards from place to place in the books.
The Pokemon title became the first mainstream hit for augmented reality, in which real-world views captured via a camera are mixed together with computer graphics on the screen.
Niantic had previously attempted to popularise AR with Ingress, a location-based sci-fi game released in 2012. But it was only after it took on an established brand that it caught the wider public’s attention.
“I think the Harry Potter game is a huge deal,” commented Piers Harding-Rolls from the IHS Markit consultancy.
“If you look at the different major franchises out there, I don’t think there are many that could do Pokemon Go justice as a follow-up.”
Relatively few details have been provided at this point about the forthcoming game, except that it will involve players learning spells before exploring their neighbourhoods to search for mysterious artefacts and fight “legendary beasts” with the option to team up with others to “take down powerful enemies”.
Potter fans have been told they will have to wait until next year to discover more.
The title is likely to take advantage of enhanced augmented reality features provided by Apple and Google via their ARKit and ARCore developer tools, which were not available when Pokemon Go launched.
But Niantic may be mindful that many of Pokemon Go’s remaining fans play it with its AR features switched off because it makes the game easier to play and helps save battery life.
“I expect the Harry Potter augmented reality experiences will be more robust and complex than they were in Pokemon Go, which should make the game more dynamic and the experience more engaging,” Mr Harding-Rolls predicted.
“But I still don’t think they will be essential to the experience.”