In this digital age, classic toy makers are constantly trying to reinvent their products to suit the new way kids today play, the same way toy manufacturer Mattel is trying to keep its flagship brand Barbie relevant every year.
Over the years, we’ve seen Barbie evolve from the classic blonde-haired slim girl to its numerous versions today -- there’s now a Latina Barbie, and even a Filipina one -- in an attempt to promote diversity and widen its market reach. Barbie has recently updated her fashion style, too, with flats and sandals now part of her wardrobe.
Recently, it has jumped into the realm of interactive toys with its new innovation: Hello Barbie, an interactive doll kids can actually talk to or have a conversation with. Think iPhone’s Siri housed in a doll. Hello Barbie combines artificial intelligence with a built-in microphone, a Wi-Fi connection, and speech-recognition capabilities to actually respond via more than 8,000 lines of pre-recorded dialogue. It could actually carry a good conversation, at least, with a child, and could even talk about relationships, real emotions, and feelings. She can even tell jokes!
Hello Barbie has an on/off button—she’s ready to listen only when the child flips the switch. Parents can also control its settings via an app, so that moms or dad can approve or delete potential topics such as, say, Halloween, if a child particulary dislikes the holiday, or Christmas, if the family does not really celebrate it.
Privacy concerns When Mattel announced earlier this year its plans for Hello Barbie, safety groups had raised concerns over a child’s privacy. The way its speech-recognition technology works is that the doll listens to children’s words and sends them over the Internet to a cloud where a software “listens” to it or processes it in order to compose the perfect response.
Advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood had lobbied for the toy company to abandon the project. "This is really about Mattel eavesdropping on a child's heart and soul—and the most intimate things about their lives," says Susan Linn, executive director of the group, via a phone interview with USA Today. "It is corporate surveillance in the home and exploitation where kids are most vulnerable — around creative play," she added.
Mattel's tech partner ToyTalk maintains that Hello Barbie does not violate any privacy laws, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. "[Our] products never search the open web for answers. Responses are carefully crafted by our own writing team, and conversations recorded through our products are never used to advertise or market to children or anyone," its CEO Oren Jacob said in an interview with The Register.
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Mattel also assures parents that the doll would never ask about a child's personal information such as her address or even her name. The doll’s safety features also guard against corruption of stored data; it cannot be accessed by unauthorized users. While parents will be in control of the data, the company asks the parents' permission to use the audio recordings to improve its speech-recognition function.
What do you think? Will you get one for your child?
September 17, 2015. “Artificial intelligence takes over Barbie's brain” (ibtimes.com.uk) September 17, 2015. “The new Hello Barbie is like Siri trapped in a doll's body” (mashable.com) March 12, 2015. “Mattel urged to scrap Wi-Fi mic Barbie after Register investigation” (theregister.cop.uk) March 11, 2015. “High-tech 'talking' Barbie bad idea, group says” (usatoday.com)