Hello Barbie: Cute or Creepy?

Do you remember when you were younger, and you had that one toy that you would carry around constantly? The one that never left your side, the one you had conversations with and just wished that they would be able to talk back? Well imagine if that toy did respond to your confessions and questions, all the while recording what you were saying and learning how to respond accordingly. Sounds a bit creepy now doesn’t it? But this is exactly want Mattel want to do. Celebrating her 56th birthday this year, Barbie has been a staple for many young children for generations. Now, parents want iconic doll out of their child’s hands and out of their homes.

This is how the Barbie, named Hello Barbie, will work: A child presses a button on Barbie’s belt buckle and speaks into the microphone, located in the doll’s necklace. An artificial intelligence system then processes and analyses the speech. Responses are streamed back to the doll, who replies to the child. This is all done over a secure WiFi connection. Mattel teamed up with start-up company ToyTalk in order to do this. The worry? ToyTalks privacy policy says that by using the company’s services, they are giving ToyTalk permission to collect, use and disclose personal information. Essentially, by letting your child play with the Hello Barbie, you are allowing ToyTalk to use cookies to gather information Barbie has found out. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that ToyTalk is listening to the recordings of the children talking to the Barbie, and ToyTalk CEO Oren Jacob has told Kernel mag that it is similar to what Apple does when an iPhone user converses with Siri. However, they do store the conversations for up to two years, or until the parent closes the account, and is used to improve the voice recognition features. Because of this, parents who wish to buy the doll for their child will have to sign a consent form, and are allowed to log in to an account to access all of the data Barbie collects about their child. This is where the other concerns come in.

The children that use this doll are unaware that everything they say to the doll is being listened to, and can be listened to by their parents. As well as this, if a child confides in the Barbie, it could be used as evidence in cases of child abuse. For example, if a child confides in the Barbie that their parents are hitting them or sexually abusing them, then there is a chance this data can hold up as evidence in court. There is also a potential for hacking, and although it’s hard to think that many people would want to hack into Barbie’s server, there is the possibility that data could be called upon in things such as a child custody battle, for example. Or further, and scarier still, the government reviewing a child’s conversation data to find evidence on something involving a parent, as when the recorder is turned on, there’s a chance it could catch background conversation. It may seem farfetched, but these are legitimate questions parents should be asking, and Mattel and ToyTalk answering, before they even consider letting Barbie hit the shelves.

On the flip side, a Talking Barbie could become a child’s new best friend. With thousands upon thousands of responses, Barbie’s voice is filled with emotion, she can tell jokes, and is able to pick up on certain key words that they then retain, such as “divorce”, allowing Barbie to steer through rough patches in the conversation and asking questions about the child and works accordingly. For example, Barbie asks the child their favourite colour, then says that that’s her favourite colour too, essentially giving a child a portable best friend. She is also supportive, and answers questions such as “Do you think I’m pretty?” with answers like “of course you’re pretty, but do you know what else you are? Smart, talented and funny”, possibly in answer to ongoing criticism that young girls exposed to Barbie’s suffer from self-esteem issues. Regardless, Barbie is the supportive, loving friend every child can have access to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Eventually, children will have a digital footprint, just like the rest of us, but it’s whether parents want to start that collection of data as early as four or five with the use of the Hello Barbie. What do you think? Would you let your child play with a Barbie that recorded what they were saying?

Holly Martin


all images belong to Mattel

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