Yay Or Nay? Do We Really Need A Talking Barbie?

September 24, 2015  |  

When you think of Barbie you probably think of your first doll head when you were six years old. Hours would be spent combing her long blond hair (brown hair if you got the Chrissy doll, who was Black) and having conversations about your favorite candies. You would tell her everything. She was your trusted confident and very best friend.

If only she could talk.

Well, guess what? Barbie’s getting a makeover and this time it has nothing to do with a different shade of lipstick or an outfit change. She’s taking a big leap into the Artificial Intelligence world. Just in time for the Christmas holiday boom, Mattel will release Hello Barbie, the first doll that can actually hold a conversation. Think of Apple’s Siri if she could go back and forth on the same topic three or four times. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

According a New York Times article, this is how it works. Mattel hired a voiceover artist and a team of writers to write and record as many as 8,000 lines of scripted conversation. So if Barbie were to ask a question like, “What’s your favorite subject at school?” The kid’s response will be recorded through a computer chip inside Barbie, and transmitted via WiFi to server at ToyTalk, the Hello Barbie command center. (Sounds so Star Wars!) Here, the response will be picked apart for key words that will elicit an appropriate response. Many possible responses have already been prerecorded so once a match has been made, it’s sent back to Barbie. All of this in a matter of nanoseconds. Even generic responses have been recorded when no match can be made. Barbie will say something like, “That’s awesome!” when she has no idea what the heck you’re talking about. Just like your real life best friend!

Even touchier subjects get handled with a red flag. If you tell Barbie something like your grandpa has died, Barbie will file that info and make sure not to go there in the future.

You imagine your six year-old taking her Barbie on a road trip, playing games, which she also does, and even winding down with her in bed at night. You imagine them growing older together and Mattel updating the chip because in the same way that Apple strings us along with newer versions of the iPhone each year, they’ve probably already recorded the next 8,000 lines.

Soon this Barbie will be able to read her stories and answer questions in-between. She’ll have an alarm clock so she’ll wake her up for school and tell her to brush her hair and teeth. She’ll have a file for the things that make her laugh. She’ll be able to get her to do things that you can’t because, after all, Barbie is her celebrity bff. Sarah Wulfeck, one of the scriptwriting masterminds behind Barbie’s dialogue told The New York Times, “I like to think of Barbie as the world’s best babysitter.” She went on to say that she imagines a girl taking her new doll into her bedroom and closing the door. “I have no doubt she will ask Barbie all manner of the intimate questions that she wouldn’t ask an adult.”

Birds and bees anybody?

Wow, done right way, this talking Barbie could actually transform parenting.

But then you also think about an article your husband was telling you about recently where two hacking experts were able to hack a car through the car’s wireless network system. They literally took control of the vehicle–the music, air conditioner, steering and brakes–right from their living rooms. It’s a growing risk that has the auto industry scrambling.

How do you protect drivers from being vulnerable to hackers when the car relies on a computer network?

Back to Barbie, at this point she can’t reach over and physically hurt your child, but she could do something far worse. Think about it, Hello Barbie is hooked up to a wifi database where all of your child’s responses, including red flags are stored. It’s constantly building data on your child. Who owns this data, well, ToyTalk/Mattel. What if hackers got a hold of the database? What type of influence could Barbie have on your child? What information could she be sent to extract? “What’s your home address? Are mommy and daddy there now? When will they be back?”

And you won’t even know this is going on because you can’t/won’t monitor their conversations. Why would you? This toy was bought so that you could have more freedom. It’s the new TV/video game.

Maybe you’re overthinking it, maybe you’re not. But at one point, no one wanted their kids to listen to TV or the radio. “It’s going to be the death of them!” oldsters would say. Even today the Amish refuse to own or drive a car, but seriously, do you want to live like the Amish? No disrespect.

Like it or not, life moves on. Parents have had to adapt and make sure their kids aren’t swallowed up by this vast world. Who knows, perhaps Hello Barbie is simply the world of tomorrow. But are we ok with that?

Are you cool with a doll the builds a data file about your child?

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