Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Hello Barbie - Is this the dream toy you've been looking for?

I used to have a Barbie doll when I was a little girl. I also had a Sindy doll and a Tressy doll (I’m showing my age now!) and I used to really enjoy dressing them and playing with them as any little girl would. I used to make them a lego kitchen to play in and I made them clothes to wear and a dolls house out of a cardboard box. I expect I used to talk to them a lot too.

Several decades pass and it’s time for a new kind of Barbie from Mattel. She's called Hello Barbie and is already sold out on the Mattel website. She’s interactive and can converse with children. She uses machine learning to improve on those conversations over time. As you can see from the clip, she does a pretty good job of those conversations too. She’s the first iteration of a robot Barbie, if you like.

For her conversation capability to work, it uses wi-fi and cloud storage and proprietary technology from ToyTalk. It records and listens to the child’s words. Sends that data to its main server, works out a reply and sends the right pieces of conversation back to the doll – all in real time. On one level, this could be very useful indeed to improve a child’s communication and speech skills. But there’s more than a little downside with the service.

Let's leave to one side for now the bit about encouraging children to have a deep relationship with an object.... (Ever seen Ex Machina or Her? If not, you should. Both great movies exploring our relationship with robots.) One of the main concerns for me is the smartphone app that accompanies the doll. As the parent (or buyer), you can set up the accompanying app to listen in to your child’s conversations with Barbie and even share them with other people. This facilitates helicopter parenting at its worst. Just no. Seriously. Don't even think about it. Let children be children. And give them some space to play, to imagine and to be. You really do not need to monitor every word they say or stalk them while they're playing.

This article on The Conversation goes into more detail about the issues around the service, the potential for hacking, the potential for collection of data and misuse of such data, and more.

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