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Image credit: Nanit

Nanit the AI nanny tries to unravel the mysteries of a restless baby

It learns your kid's sleeping patterns so you don't have to.
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When my wife and I became parents, the most important weapon in our childcare arsenal was an A5-size notebook. In this mighty tome we wrote out every single data point relating to our new baby, from the quantity of milk she drank and duration of sleep through to the volume of excreta. It was, after all, only with this information that we were able, in our sleep-deprived and confused state, to coordinate how to meet her needs.

Devices like Nanit's artificially intelligent baby monitor are designed to outsource much of that brainwork. It's a $349 night-vision camera that hangs over a cot, using computer vision and deep learning to monitor your little one's sleep. The little gadget is relatively small, but it packs a microphone, speaker, camera, nightlight and temperature sensor inside its body.

The company describes itself as the "Tesla of baby monitors," offering artificial intelligence and machine vision. In addition, the device is designed to resemble a particularly elegant-looking lamp and hide its geekiness in plain sight. The company's pitch also encompasses some of the best security for a baby camera available on the market, should you be worried about hackers.

Nanit remains in position with the help of a five-ish-foot-tall floor stand that needs to be screwed into the wall behind with a neck brace. As with a self-assembly IKEA lamp, you screw in a pair of angled feet to help the pole balance. Word to the wise, however: The feet fixings aren't the best, and their screw ends began to thread as soon as I began attaching them.

Due to federal regulations governing the position of cables near cots, Nanit's USB cable is buried in plastic piping. These segments are 20 inches long and are designed to look unobtrusive when placed against your baseboard. Unfortunately, if your outlets are relatively close to the cot, you're left with an unsightly pile of tubes that you'll need to hide behind furniture. The company has, however, promised to work on a more elegant solution to this problem in the future.

Using your smartphone as a display, Nanit will work as a regular ol' video baby monitor, piping sound and vision from the cot 24/7. In addition, a built-in night-light can be activated and deactivated from inside the app. Users can also see temperature and humidity readings for their nursery, as well as save snaps of the sleeping kid to the camera roll.

There is one surprising omission from Nanit's feature list: the lack of a way to use the device as a walkie-talkie. Plenty of cheaper monitors (including my own) enable you to chat to your kid via the camera's built-in speaker. On one hand, settling your child remotely almost never works, but it's useful for asking your partner for their drink order from the other end of the house.

The other, more important half of Nanit's pitch is that it'll offer you insights above and beyond a garden-variety baby monitor. With machine learning and computer vision, the device tracks your child's sleeping pattern and can interpret that data for your later perusal. Each morning, you can find out how much sleep your kid had and how long it took them to fall asleep.

You'll also get a highlights reel, showing you an edited-down, sped-up video of all the notable incidents that took place during the night. These reels are never more than a minute or so long, but they'll show you if your kid quietly woke up and fell asleep during the night. The nature of the clip, however, means that you'll be mentally playing this tune as you watch the video.

The data's not just for learning how sleep-fucked you are, but also for planning your kid's day to suit their needs. If they've slept for 11 hours without waking, then you can take them to play gym and lay off the midday naps. If their night (and, by extension, yours) was terrible, then you can treat them with kid gloves during the day and put them to bed earlier the next evening.

Another thing that Nanit offers is a notification stream, which lists every documented event that takes place during a night. Should you need to examine a particular incident during a very rough night, you can scroll through every data point the device absorbed. There is the risk, however, that you can drown in so much data that you'll never get the real benefit of it.

There's also a general problem with computer vision (rather than Nanit specifically) that provided a couple of amusing errors. While these devices "see," they don't necessarily understand, which can cause a pretty big problem. One day during testing, the app's dashboard (pictured) told me that my kid had spent six and a half hours asleep during the day. Which was interesting, because she'd been out at the play gym all day and had yet to return home. The camera had, unfortunately, registered her sleeping bag -- laid out on the bed for that night -- as her. Presumably, as the light shifted through the day, the system had thought it saw enough motion to believe she was there.

Daniel Cooper

Errors aside, Nanit does offer one truly helpful tool to help you improve your baby's sleep: a weekly email of insights derived from the algorithms. It's here that you'll be given tips on how to get them off to sleep better in the future. For instance, I frequently put my rug rat to bed after she's already fallen asleep on me, but research says that they're easier to settle if they drift off in their cot. So I've started resolving to do that every night from now on, if only to make it more likely that she doesn't wake up during the night.

The sheer volume of information that Nanit aggregates about your child should give you at least a moment of pause. The system collects images and video of your child in bed, as well as you in your nightclothes during comfort visits. In addition, Nanit is sucking down all of the deep learning data it can about your kid's sleeping pattern.

The company's representatives explained that the video is retained for as long as you subscribe to Nanit's Insights program, plus a cooling-off period should you change your mind. But the actual data is retained to help improve the company's machine learning program. Nanit says that the information is anonymized, but there's no way for users to opt out of this system.

Nanit says that that's fair, and common practice among other companies -- like Nest -- so you needn't be concerned. But that may not comfort those folks who are concerned about privacy and the potential for data to be turned into a "fingerprint." As we learned earlier this year, researchers believe that anonymous data can be reverse-engineered to identify individuals.

It's a decision that you'll need to make for yourself, although, to give Nanit credit, it is one of the most secure monitors on the market. As well as using TLS/SSL, the company employs AES 256-bit symmetric key encryption and is compliant with the HIPAA. Given how many Internet of Things devices -- especially connected cameras -- are shipped without even basic security, Nanit's effort here is well worth celebrating.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the issue of whether you should buy Nanit as the ultimate addition to your own nursery. The simplest thing to say is that if you've got the better part of $400 to spend on a baby monitor, then this is the baby monitor you should buy. Nanit fits unobtrusively into your beautifully appointed nursery and may help you put your kid to sleep.

Everything Nanit does, it does pretty well, and there are certainly reasons to spend money on a device that'll help your kid get to sleep. Hell, the alternative is not learning lessons about good sleep habits and having to get up at 3 a.m. each and every night. However, Nanit can only really cover what goes on in the crib, and kids are never that simple. It's like with Tesla: There are other, cheaper EVs available, but if you can afford it, why wouldn't you buy one?

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